Tag Archives: thriller

Theatre Review: Back Door (Tristan Bates Theatre, London)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker (front) and Jaacq Hugo (back). Photograph: Courtesy of Jules (Philter Photography)

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

A twisted powder-keg thriller blending reality and fiction for a sharp and glamorous play looking at truth, fact, and obsession.

Overview

Associated Press photographer, Tabitha Montgomery, lives in Paris. After badly spraining her ankle in Montmartre, she’s housebound with only her American houseboy, John, an arsenal of wine, and the luxury of spying on her neighbours across the courtyard to keep her company. Female impersonator and film artists Violette moves in across the way, for which Tabitha has the perfect view of from her apartment window. One night, Tabitha is awoken by a scream and the sound of glass breaking. When she spies Violette with blood on her hands, Tabitha is convinced that Violette has murdered her dance partner, and starts on a quest to prove her suspicions. But at what cost? And when does investigative intuition turn into dangerous obsession?

Writing

Polis Loizou combines the influence of real life female impersonator, Barbette, in an art-Deco resetting of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window: gender-bending and twisting the characters involved.

Taking on something that is arguably Hitchcock’s most acclaimed film is something that is always going to be difficult to live up to. Thankfully, Loizou doesn’t try to emulate Rear Window but merely use it to frame his own unique razor wit and a colourfully imaginative exploration of the thin line between fact and fiction and paranoia and prejudice. The result is an uncanny and debauched comic-thriller, which, although laced with plenty of catty quips and flamboyant put-downs, still manages to intensely explore its themes, throw in a few marvellous red herrings, and keep an absolutely tight and suspenseful grip on the audience to the very last beat. It’s as if Loizou was the love-child of Noel Coward and Agatha Christie: cheeky, yet masterfully capricious.

As much Loizou captures the sass and dirty glamour of 1920s Paris, what’s most astonishing about the writing is Loizou’s turn at suspense. This is not just in re-enacting Hitchcock’s infamous scene where Jeff watches Lisa snoop around the apartment opposite for clues, but in the play’s climax. It gets so intense that you honestly can’t tell for love or money which way things are going to pan out, especially as one of the possibilities places a character in considerable peril. You’re absolutely hooked in this nail-biting crescendo whilst, amazingly, Loizou manges to simultaneously deliver a bewitching finale that leaves you haunted.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha. Photograph: Jules (Philter Photography)

Direction & Production

Whilst this is an incredibly small scale and humble touring fringe production, Andrew Denyer’s set, whilst simple, does it’s job marvellously. The three windows attached to Tabitha’s apartment also double as those at Violette’s far away abode. It looks a bit odd at first, with the issue of proximity being hard to ignore. But cast ability and direction draw the audience’s attention and imagination to do the work for them, suspending the belief and building the suspense. It’s a straightforward yet inventive solution to what could have been the biggest problem and tripping point for the entire production. It also bristles with wonderful art-Deco style that really compliments the wit and epoch that the show is set in.

There are also some really striking uses of projected image, fractured and distorted by being projected directly onto the set, adding a real atmosphere of sinister enigma especially given the wonderfully Man Ray-esque nature of Loizou’s video work here. It’s a production of real ingenuity that pays dividends in lieu of having the means to do something grander: an exquisite execution of essence beyond budget.

Cast

This three hander is also incredibly well delivered by the small company’s cast. Loizou takes on the role of John, and has plays him with a wonderful coy campness that crumbles into boyish vulnerability when Tabitha manipulatively picks apart his façade. Fragile, yet brimming with energy and venomous wit, he marvellously toys with the writing’s unexpected juxtaposition of camp hilarity against brooding jeopardy.

Laura Louise Baker as Tabitha is a little difficult to warm to initially, playing Tabitha as too steely, hurried, and terse to begin with. But quickly, she starts to command her performance and really dominates the stage. She brings a stark authority to Tabitha that, for better or for worse, exudes a gravitas that has you completely convinced that she’s the one closer to the truth than anyone else. Severe and expertly conniving, both her and her character are forces not to be reckoned with.

Jaacq Hugo is ethereal as the Barbette-inspired Violette. He oozes a mysterious suavity that is so chic it hurts. But most the astonishing aspect of his performance is when Violette is not Violette. Here, he turns into a brutal adversary of unnerving power, adding to the twisted and dangerous feel of the play. His switch from fay siren to threatening hulk is tremendous.

Together, the three conspire and clash meticulously, playing both sides of their characters off whatever face the other decides to reveal. It’s these constant slick and untrusting fraught interactions between them that really compel.

Verdict

A riot of Deco daring and wit. Suspense and comedy collide to create one of the most inspired and surprising plays this year. Tight, cutting, and edge-of-you seat thrilling, it’s murderously good.

[youtube http://youtu.be/t9wrJWFwLDg]

Back Door played at the Tristan Bates Theatre 9-10 December 2014. For more information about the production, including upcoming tour dates, visit www.offoffoffbroadway.co.uk.

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Opinion: Which “Sweeney Todd” to See?

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

It’s pies all round this season, for some reason, as London gets no less than THREE productions of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterful Gothic musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Going on right now is the production at the Twickenham Theatre that has had all the critics raving (including myself), and soon we’ll be getting another production in London’s oldest pie shop done by the Tooting Arts Club (TAC), and then the English National Opera (ENO) will stick it’s finger in by bringing Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson into the fray.

Recently, the ENO’s publicity shots have been getting a lot of flack because they look so SO bad, with professional West End photographer Darren Bell saying they made it look like “Mary Berry The Musical”.

But as much as it’s easy to scoff at these incredibly misjudged press images, there is the question is whether any of these productions are actually worth seeing.

ENO

Go?

Thompson as Mrs. Lovett may well be something quite special. She’s an incredible actress with a long an illustrious career, so seeing her take will undoubtedly be something unique. Furthermore, the chance to hear Sondheim’s incredibly rich and complex score played by a full orchestra is one not to be passed up.

Don’t Go?

I’m really unsure about this, for two reasons. Foremost, is the inclusion of Bryn Terfel. Now, that’s not to say I don’t rate Terfel as an opera singer. I think he’s marvellous, and seeing him as Wotan in Das Rhiengold at the Royal Opera House was something rather wonderful. But I have a massive pet peeve about opera singers doing musicals. Opera is a completely different style of singing to that of a musical. Every time I hear opera singers doing musical numbers or even pop songs, I cringe. It doesn’t sound right because it’s not the right style. Likewise, I wouldn’t expect Connie Fisher to handle La Boheme, and the very thought of Michael Ball’s opera album (this actually exists) brings me out in a cold sweat.

As beautiful a bass voice as Terfel has, I can’t see how adding operatic bellows to Sweeney’s part is really going to enhance it. In fairness, Sweeney isn’t a new experience for Terfel, having already done this semi-staged performance earlier this year at the Lincoln Centre, and also in a concert performance at the BBC Proms in 2010. From videos you can readily find on YouTube, he does seem to tone it done a bit. But compared David Badella and Ball’s acclaimed performances, it still sounds a bit out of place and far too arch. Though Sondheim himself, in his published collection of annotated lyrics Finishing the Hat describes Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street as a “dark operetta”, it’s not really an excuse to ramp up the vibrato, no matter how established an opera star is.

[youtube http://youtu.be/ba6U4mZpG6Y]

Secondly, the fact that the ENO are only going to do a semi-staged production is really disheartening. Given the capability of the stage and some of the marvellous sets they’ve done for almost all of their productions, it seems incredibly lazy. It certainly works for the Lincoln Centre due to it’s lack of space but rather marvellous acoustics. But when you’ve got one of the largest stages in London at your disposal, it’s insulting to do so little with it. Plus, when tickets are going for as much as £155, far more than the top priced tickets for Chichester’s celebrated West End transfer, you’d expect at least some glitz and production value (although, there will be 300 £10 seats at each performance)! Thankfully, the terrible publicity shots belay the fact that the semi-staging still looks brooding. But I can’t see how it would better than the 2001 concert version in San Francisco with Patti LuPone, George Hearn, and Neil Patrick Harris. Here it was these behemoth performers that carried the show, rather than relying on moody lighting and some people dropping a grand piano on its back.

[youtube http://youtu.be/D3-4JHLO12Y]

Tooting Arts Club

Go?

You get pre-performance pie, a gin cocktail, and a sense of novelty.

Don’t Go?

Lynn Gardener recently wrote a very interesting piece on the gimmick of site-specific/”immersive” theatre. Ultimately, she states that, more often than not, it’s a term used as a sales pitch more than anything else. With only taking an audience of 32 into the tiny pie shop at a time, my misgivings is that it’s going to be very difficult to create a performance that’s of much substance, let alone conjurer up the wide variety of scenes and locations within the musical in what will be a very restrictive space. Therefore, on the face of it, this seems like a prime example of the cynical selling-point theatre companies undertake to lure in the punters. If you’re just going to sat be watching Sweeney Todd in a pie-shop, where’s the immersion in that? And what will take the production beyond shallow novelty to warrant something site-specific?

Harrington's Pie & Mash, Tooting.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, Tooting.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. Derek Anderson’s production at the Twickenham Theatre is brimming with little innovations and tenacities that manage to reduce this massive musical into the tiny sardine-can space. But TAC will have to come up with something seriously good to even contend with the Twickenham production. In saying that, they have been getting a lot of praise for their recent site-specific theatre productions, so they could still pull a coup de grace none the less, and perhaps I should have a little more faith.

Twickenham Theatre

Go?

There’s not been any review that’s been less than 4*s. But particularly, Anderson’s characterisations played out by Badella and Sarah Ingram are astonishing and superbly performed.

Don’t Go?

Because you’ll be hard pressed to get a ticket! The show originally sold out its entire run, BUT there have been a few extra shows added, extending the run until 12 October. Buy them quick!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Verdict

Given that it’s tried and tested, the Twickenham Theatre production is a version that you just can’t go wrong with. Therefore, if you have the chance, try and see this above others. Mind you, such an opinion is only based on the apprehensions I’ve outlined above, and am certainly not saying that either the ENO or TAC’s productions won’t be worth your time and money.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at:

English National Opera, London, WC2N 4ES, between 30 March and 12 April 2015. Tickets are £10 – £155. To book, visit www.eno.org.

Harrington’s Pie & Mash, London, SW17 OER, between 21 October – 29 November 2014. Tickets are sold out. For more information about tickets, visit www.tootingartsclub.co.uk.

Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 12 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.


Musical Review: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (Twickenham Theatre, London)

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

David Badella (left) and Sarah Ingram (right).

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Perhaps the most ingenious and tenacious of productions ever, the brand spanking new Twickenham Theatre opens with a production of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece that all future versions will be judged by.

Overview

One of Stephen Sondheim’s most celebrated and well known works, this musical thriller draws its influence from similar tales appearing in Victorian penny dreadfuls that have since become urban legend. A barber murders his customers and packs their dismembered bodies into pastries to be sold in the pie shop below, forming part of a larger revenge plot.

Book

Hugh Wheeler’s book combines together the rag-bag of grim horror stories, sold for a penny on the streets of Victorian London (hence, ‘penny dreadfuls’), and weaves from it a plot of revenge and dastardly companionship. Sweeney is given the back story of being transported, as a ploy by a judge to snatch his beautiful wife: thus giving him a mens rea for his murderous spree. Mrs. Lovett is the long-time and besotted companion of Mr. Todd who abets him by literally using his crimes to flesh out her ailing pie business.

But what’s best about Wheeler’s book is that he also seasons this tale with a ghastly sense of humour. He creates a varied tapestry that takes audiences through everything from the frenzied to the funny, and from the tender to the tense, sometimes simultaneously. His characters are colourful, and each play an integral and in the story’s complex development. No-one feels like a superfluous after-thought, and character development (and dispatching) slides neatly into the main narrative without being forced in. It’s a meticulous and well constructed book that puts most other musicals to shame. Everything has a purpose, place, and pace here.

Music & Lyrics

Some, including myself, would argue that this is probably one of Sondheim’s richest and most complex scores. Particularly, it has some of his most memorable songs with very few (if any) of the numbers here being forgettable or lacking in lustre. But the real genius is his use of leitmotifs throughout. By themselves they are sweeping and notable, marking a character with aural dexterity and giving them an extra layer to their persona of their written role. But the real genius is how these keep cropping up in incredibly complex quartets or echoed subtly in the orchestral underlay. It’s a score that meticulously holds everything in place as much as it drives the action.

Sondheim’s music manages to compliment Wheeler’s characterisations and plot development, embracing both the manic and the magical. Sondheim really compliments the many juxtapositions and little in-jokes that Wheeler toys so well with. Particularly, numbers such as “Joanna” in the Second Act, where Sweeney wistfully laments the distance between him and his daughter whilst causally cuts the throats of his victims, is one of the most outrageous and memorable moments of the entire musical. But then there are numbers such as “City on Fire” that is a tense and fretful, crescendoing to the musical’s climax.

Lyrically, Sondheim pens a libretto that is as poetic and playful as his music. Internal rhymes and rhythm being a speciality. There aren’t any predictable or groan-worthy couplets here: just surprising and joy-inducing lines that bounce through the score and really draws you into the music.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of 'Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street'.

David Badella (centre) and the cast of ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’.

Direction & Production

For a musical that was originally penned for a vast Broadway stage with a full orchestral score, and has since been done recently as such in the West End, reducing the show into the minuscule space was always going to be a challenge. But producers David Adkin and Tony Green have ended up with some of the most tenacious, inspired, and innovative productions to have ever happened on the fringe. Whilst some of the text has been given the chop to make the small-scale production flow unabated, nothing of the charm of the musical has been lost. Their myriad surprises and ingenuities don’t just merely accommodate this behemoth of a musical, but manages to enhance it.

Most of this can be found in Rachel Stone’s set design. It’s essentially the one set that suggests all those that happen, with nothing but a few wooden boxed to play with. But there are many surprises that help the audience imagine and distinguish each place and moment from the last. Tables rise up out of the floor,and  gauzes uncover hidden cubby-holes. particularly ingenious is Sweeney’s chair. In countless production has usually opted for a vertical setting, Stone doesn’t let the absence of a below stage pit deter her from making it work just as effectively. Whilst it seems like a trifle to go on about a piece of furniture, once you’ve seen the musical you’ll understand just how critical getting the chair right in relation to the rest of the musical.

But it’s other little touches that are absolutely fantastic. Particularly, the tangled network of piping in the ceiling that look purely decorative, actually drip water onto cast iron grates at one point, creating an stunning soundscape that is a jaw-dropping coup de grace. Stone’s set is also greatly augmented by Simon Getin Thomas’ lightening, that does some marvellous things with colour and back-lighting to help bolster what’s happening on stage, and really denote those changes of place without props of scenery.

Derek Anderson also does a brilliant job at directing the show with a small cast on an even smaller stage. He manages to not only find space for the busy going-ons of Sweeney’s London, but sometimes turns it into a meticulous maelstrom of tightly knit activity. The only things that remind you of the size of the theatre space is that fact that, if you’re in the front row, your knees are literally up against the stage, and if at the ends of them, you’ll end up having to have actors squeezing past you down the aisle to reach the stage at points.

But it’s Anderson’s treatment of the characters that is the most interesting. Whereas countless productions of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street see’s Sweeney as a formidable and domineering character, and Mrs. Lovett as mad and completely delude, Anderson has tried something different. Here, Mrs. Lovett is conniving and in total control of her faculties. What’s more, she’s a lot more aware of Todd’s ever-distancing interest in her, rather than holding onto some obsessed pipe-dream. In contrast, Sweeney here is almost too mild mannered and docile to be believed capable of carrying out his blood-soaked spree: a bit too weedy and pathetic to actually do anything about the gross injustice he’s suffered. Thus, you get the sense that Mrs. Lovett is the brains and means of the entire operation, rather than just a clingy, and somewhat batty, convenience to Sweeney. Whilst it’s a bit difficult to accept if you know the musical, and it’s most famed productions – especially Sweeney’s characterisations – it’s actually one that works, even if it initially irks.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Sarah Ingram (centre) dishing out one hell of a performance.

Cast

You could not ask for a better cast here. Headlining, is the indomitable David Badella in the title role. But Badella, although brilliant here, isn’t actually the main event. Even though the chance to see him perform with his utterly lucious crushed-velvet baritone voice of his in such close quarters, he’s upstaged (in minutia, might I add) by Sarah Ingram and the rest of the cast.

Mark McKerracher as Judge Turpin is suitably unhinged and devious, accompanied by a wondrously flamboyant Chris Coleman as Beadle Banford, who minces about like some fiendish incarnation of Larry Grayson. Mikeala Newton is also wonderful as Tobias Ragg, injecting a wonderfully boyish innocence into the fray, as well as performing “Not While I’m Around” with a sweet and lilting grace.

But Ingram really steals the show. Embracing every inch of Anderson’s interpretation of Mrs. Lovett, she’s supreme. Streetwise, manipulative, direct, and in charge, she’s a revelation. Every moment of her time on stage is viscous and elating. You almost feel her character should have gotten what she wanted at the end of it all, rather than what she gets. Ingram is a presence that puts both Angela Lansbury and Patti LuPone (my two favourite Mrs. Lovett’s) to shame as a theatrical force beyond reckoning.

Verdict

If you’ve never seen this before, or if you have only the film adaptation to go by, this is the perfect gateway drug to Sondheim and the beginning of a lifelong addiction to this musical. But what really marks this production out as spectacular is that if, like me, you know the musical inside out, you should still be prepared to be surprised and astonished every crotchet and throat-slit of the way: a real testament to just how outstanding this production is. This is a production that every future version of this musical will be judged by. The West End? Let them eat pie!

[youtube http://youtu.be/nG0AyrAdnGk]

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street plays at the Twickenham Theatre, London, TW1 3QS, until 4 October 2014. Tickets are £15 (concessions available). To book, visit www.twickenhamtheatre.com.


Theatre Review: Ghost From A Perfect Place (Arcola Theatre, London)

Florence Hall (centre) as Rio Sparks. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Florence Hall (centre) as Rio Sparks. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Rating: ****

In a Nutshell

Solid and enchanting writing skilfully produced, but just not as daring and dangerous as other Philip Ridley plays.

Overview

Grandma Sparks receives a visitor one evening, none other than East End mob boss Travis Flood, who has come out of hiding after many years. He’s here to see her granddaughter, Rio, leader of the violent local girl gang, The Disciples of St. Donna. But during his visit, Travis gets more than he bargained for, as this old school gangster clashes with new blood, and past wrongs come home to roost.

Writing

It’s hard to believe that this play is 20 years old, first getting its performance to great acclaim back in 1994. What’s astonishing is that it has lost very little of its sheen, even with the moral panic of violent girl gangs,  a very integral part of the plot, being somewhat dated. Yet two decades on, and with a new edition of the text, it’s still a vivid and rich play.

Ridley has come up with a watertight narrative, full of complex themes and abstracts, and with several quiet twists and turns that surprise or prompt little “aaah!” moments. Memories and the re-telling of them are often a key theme in a lot of Ridley’s works, and here is no different. It’s these scenes that are the most beguiling and entrancing, and really elevate the play from being something ordinary. The way these are written, and the deft handle of language, result in an ethereal and transient netherworld that flits in and out of ours and the characters’ reality; it’s transfixing, even if some of the points put across through them are more than unsavoury.

This a phenomenal sense of high poetry – tripping dexterously through metre, rhythm, and language – creates a dazzling aural kaleidoscope that is exhilarating: you hang on every word, especially when delivered with zeal and energy of the cast in this play. One particular moment, “The Sermon of St. Donna,” is nothing short of intoxicating, and really marks Ridley out as a genius playwright. What’s more, Ridley effortlessly puts wry humour, tension, and disturbing undercurrents in a headlock against each other, making this a fractured and unsettling piece. You never feel quite at ease even in the most lighter moments because of this constant juxtaposition of reality and dreams and truth and secrets shrouding foetid goings on.

However, there are a few criticisms to be had. For starters, the storyline is a little predictable and it doesn’t take much to figure out where the play is heading. Because of this, it doesn’t keep sense of unknowing mystery that would better drive the show as the comic-thriller it is. Furthermore, it’s just simply not as bold or as dangerous as his other plays. His first play, The Pitchfork Disney, had its first audience reportedly running from the Bush Theatre screaming in terror; I still get shivers thinking of Cosmo Disney’s “party trick” or Pitchfork’s “solo”. Then, there’s Mercury Fur: a sickening but perfect horror that took five years to convince the critics of it’s brilliance behind some of the most gruesome and perverse scenes to have graced the stage.

But that’s not to say that Ghost From A Perfect Place isn’t at all capricious and impacting. Gang culture is still a very real and spiky issue that hasn’t at all left us, and within the play are moments that are very violent and visceral, almost spitting at you and your comfort zones at point blank range. It still really challenges perceptions of gang culture and crime by exploring the tragic reasons youngsters turn to this sub-culture, savagely satirising the fanaticism of gang members that verges on the religious, and contrasting the misplaced romance of old mob-days with the gritty reality of the modern.

It might not be the best Ridley play, and those who have been thrilled by some of the many other new works and/or revivals of old ones might have their expectations of Ghost From a Perfect Place fall short. But that’s not to say it’s badly written: far from it. It just there’s just better Ridley out there.

Shelia Reid (left) and Michael Feast (right). Photograph: Courtesy of  Ben Broomfield.

Shelia Reid (left) and Michael Feast (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Production & Direction

This is a very slick production, giving Ghost From A Perfect Place the attention and quality it deserves. Russell Bolam has previously directed the award-winning Shivered, so already has experience of how to treat Ridley’s luscious text. He toys with pace and tempo excellently, really stringing the audience along with sudden builds of crescendo, and elsewhere swaggering among the at-odds humour of the piece. It’s great to see a director who understands not just the story, but the beat of the text itself.

He is also supported well by Anthony Lamble’s set, brimming with detail, helping us become absorbed in the squalid world and twisted turn of events. However, it’s Richard Hammarton’s sound design that is most striking. There are wonderfully subtle touches of slow-building music to support the growing intensity of some of the scenes, as well as some clever use of adding in reverberation to live sound to also achieve a sense of high drama, really bringing the piece to vibrant life.

Florence Hall as Rio. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Florence Hall as Rio. Photograph: Courtesy of Ben Broomfield.

Cast

Stealing the show are the three gang ladies: Florence Hall as Rio, Scarlett Brookes as Miss Sulphur, and Rachel Redford as Miss Kerosene. Even though they don’t appear until the second act, they drive the show with a vicious energy and a palpable animalistic cravenness. They work excellently well with each other to create an unpredictable tempest of fraying relationships and fuck-ups on the edge of reason, bouncing mercilessly off the differences of their personas. Hall is especially haunting, striding about inert and icy, curiously trying to comprehend the situation she’s been placed in, whilst desperately trying to keep control of herself, her status, and her ‘disciples’. It’s a wonderfully slow cracking of character that’s controlled and spine-tingling.

However, Michael Feast, as Travis Flood, sometimes breaks the suspension of disbelief in being a bit too much like a Victorian melodrama villain plopped in the middle of Eastenders. However, this might be more of a directional misstep that of Feast’s characterisations. It’s difficult to feel intimidated by someone who feels like a panto Ronnie Biggs, but when the show is all about the power shift from ageing gangster to unhinged “bimbos dressed in kitchen foil”, this might well be what Bolam is trying to get across. But at other times, Feast excels in smaller ticks and quirks in his performance that makes him a real treat to watch, especially what he does with his tongue! And even though you’re mostly not scared of him, because of these little garnishes, it’s when he his most vulnerable that he feels the most fiendish.

Verdict

This is not the most astonishing or outstanding of Ridley’s play’s, but it’s far from bad: in fact, it’s incredibly good. It’s still challenging and daring, just not as much as some of his more renowned works. But with this good cast and slick production, it’s your personal expectation that’s the let down, not this otherwise thrilling and suitably twisted revival.

[youtube http://youtu.be/bnH2s98QUak]

Ghost From A Perfect Place plays at the Arcola Theatre, London, E8 3DL, until 11 October 2014.. Tickets are £19 (concessions available). To book, visit www.arcolatheatre.com.


Review: Mojo (White Bear Theatre, London)

mojo flyer imqge_1Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An intense tinder-box production that brings Jez Butterworth’s phenomenal first play into quarters so close that the tension is unbearable.

Overview

Potts, Sweet, Skinny, and Baby all work at a Soho club. Their boss, Ezra, is about to make it big over a deal concerning a hit young singer, Silver Johnny. But as they celebrate, Ezra gets murdered and the club is set under siege. Can this drugged-up band of misfits keep it together, defend the club, and save their hides?

Writing

This play took the Royal Court by storm when Butterworth presented it as his début back in 1995. It was praised for its dark humour and unflinchingly fluid dialogue. Rather than this being a play about gangsters, it’s more a play about the camaraderie of a group of men who believe they’ve grown up but have done everything but.

Butterworth is quite open that Harold Pinter is a huge influence on his work, and here it’s really apparent. But in bringing out these seemingly inane repetitions and circular conversations, we find some very real and wildly charismatic characters. Despite these very definite text stylisations, it actually compliments the fact that they’re mostly off their faces on narcotics, and later broken of spirit, mind, and sense. As unlikeable and/or pitiful as they are, they’re still utterly absorbing to watch through Butterworth’s masterful handling of the text.

He manages to prise a deft and bleak comedy out of the characters, dialogue and situations. The characters often go off on bewildering and audacious tangents, belittling the dire situation that they’re trying to face turning the severe into guff as hilarious as it is ridiculous, at the drop of the hat. It’s an exhausting switch of pace and timbre that’s both unsettling and ecstatic.

But whilst the comic element of the play is one it’s most noticeable facets, the real coup de grace is the tight and tense action that Butterworth has created here. You genuinely can’t tell where the story is going to take you next and there’s more than several surprises. Darker themes are explored unapologetically, augmenting the sense of tense mystery, foreboding, and general twisted nature of the plot. But when the proverbial really hits the fan, it’s a complete edge-of-your seat adrenaline rush: a slick and violent comic thriller that gives Tarentino a run for his money.

Direction & Production

Director Sebastien Blanc has really struck gold with this production. Rather than finding the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre a challenge, he works with it in perfect accord to lift the production into something that’s absolutely phenomenal. It does still feel like a tiny space, but he really uses it to create a claustrophobic sense of cabin theatre that is just perfect for this play. He also manages to meticulously pilot the pace and action, making sure that nothing is left to wobble or be diminished by misplaced timing. He also ensures everything is as vividly visceral and natural as it can be. You never doubt the authenticity or the plausibility of the plot, as there’s a real sense of flow and organic quality to everything that happens.

In addition, Blanc has got an exceptional production team behind him. Particularly, set designer Joana Dias has spared no effort in her contribution. The set is brimming with tiny details and nuances, from untidy stacks of poker chips, saucy pin-up posters, clutters of drink cans, to dirty, tattered, and musty period furniture. You could swear that you had actually found yourself in this dingy back room of an actual 1950s Soho club, rather than the theatre space of a humble 2010s Kennington sports pub. It just adds to the sense of realism, helping the audience gets sucked into this broken and debauched world. Even the contents of the dustbins, which cannot even be seen by most of the audience, are approached with just as much eye for detail and sense comprehensive quality as the rest of the set. Not to mention some special effects that are certainly not for the squeamish. Productions of this scale of detail are rare to find on the Fringe, and this is incredibly impressive, giving the play a palpable sense of reality that compounds the already intense experience.

The only fault I can find is that there’s a gunshot sound effect that breaks the suspension of disbelief at a rather crucial moment. But this is certainly excused given just how meticulous the rest of the show is.

Cast

The cast, too, are also extraordinary. They revel in the play’s text and really embrace their characters to the core. What’s more, is that they really bounce off each other’s personalities and energies, especially juxtaposed to Oscar Blend’s staunch and bullying Mikey, who tries to make order out of his colleagues chaos. However, certain members of the cast really shine through.

Max Saunders Singer is fantastic as Potts. He gives an incredibly high spirited performance throughout. Especially, mind-riddled with narcotics, he twitches and splutters tremendously through his part, making him fascinating to watch. What’s more, is that he not only has a grand command over his stage presence as an actor, but is also able to channel this into his character’s presence and dominance of Pott’s associates. Charming yet conniving, he excels as being the unlikely wrist attempting to turn the screw.

But Luke Trebilcock is the real show stealer. Detached and unhinged, he gives an electric and unprecedented performance. Incredibly controlled and taut, Trebilcock gives a performance of power and might that will make you feel tangibly afraid of Baby’s unsound and scattershot state of mind. He’s as creepy and unnerving as they come, and really adds to the fizzing and dangerous energy of the show.

Verdict

Shows like this are the reason I’ll always love the fringe, as this is a theatrical experience that you just can’t extrapolate to bigger stages. The play is already like a tightly pact piece of plastic explosive with a slow-burning and suspenseful fuse. But in the hands of Blanc and his company, stuffing it into the intimate space of the White Bear Theatre, it turns into an unbearably tense and nerve-shredding thriller of epic proportions. I don’t want to see another toffee apple for a long time!

[youtube http://youtu.be/SF0FKmNOHOA]

Mojo runs at the White Bear Theatre, SE11 4DJ, until 21 September 2014. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit http://whitebeartheatre.co.uk.


Theatre Review: RIP (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Promotional image for RIP. Photograph: Courtesy of the King's Head Theatre.

Promotional image for RIP. Photograph: Courtesy of the King’s Head Theatre.

Rating: ***

Jack the Ripper is possibly one of the most enduring of morbid infamies. Five brutal murders and the fact he was never identified or caught, has managed to hold the fascination of centuries of generations. But whilst much is talked and debated about the murderous man himself, little is ever said about his victims.

Sonnie Beckett and Joe Morrow’s new musical sets to change this, looking beyond the mere names and occupation of Jack’s women, prising into the tragic back-stories of these five fated ladies. However, despite a worthy and interesting premise, there are issues that stop the show from being great, which is a shame because even if it’s not tremendously slick there is a definite spark of genuine inspiration here.

The main issue is the music. Whilst Beckett and Morrow manage to write a score with a great sense of variety and flair, the numbers are a little unrefined. Melodies and musical structure will often meander a bit making the songs feel hollow, never quite giving enough for the audience to sink their teeth into. Couple this with some rhyming schemes that are a little obvious and simplistic, and the music falls short of the mark more often than not.

But there are, however, a few good pieces that really illustrate that there is promise in the duo’s composing abilities. These include a rather chilling opening number, a beguilingly mournful folk tune, and Annie Chapman’s raucous burlesque of a ballad. Bolstering the score is also some very innovative use of scissors, whetting knives, and luggage as a rhythm and percussion section to accompany the single piano that provides the music, which in itself carries a lot of charisma.

The other things that let show down are smaller details that have a large impact. Hannah Kaye’s direction is very unsympathetic to the new configuration of the theatre. If you happen to have gotten a seat to close to the back wall of the stage area, or in one of the back rows, its impossible to see the heavy amount of action very central to the space and on the floor. It’s a shame, because you get the sense that if you could actually see what was going on it would indeed look quite impressive. Kaye is clearly a talented director and this is demonstrated in some frantically choreographed chorus numbers that add a sharp sense of the twisted ripe for the timbre of the tale, and the bleak tenderness she gives the women’s life stories. But she just needs to have had more thought about the dimensions and sight lines of the venue, as, unless you’re sat in a prime position, you can only imagine what’s happening, which doesn’t have quite the same effect.

Also, Jack the Ripper’s “mask” consisted of actor Peter-Lee Harper wearing some black tights over his head, which feels more silly than sinister, dissipating any tense build-up the production had been working towards.

But there is a great cast behind the production, and Beckett’s book is incredibly solid. All the women are strong actors and really manage to ply the depths of each of their characters. Especially notable was Gemma Brodrick as the drunk and downtrodden Polly Nicholas, and Emma Hook as the deranged Annie Chapman. Beckett also makes a wonderful juxtaposition of police coroners Thomas Bond and George Bagster Phillips (played by Morrow and Thomas Deplae respectively) revelling in the hideous details of the murders themselves, against the ghosts of the victims fleshing out their personal stories to build deep portraits of five real women.

Furthermore, the educated assumption Beckett makes of the identity of Jack, and the playing out of the unnerving indiscretions in the relationship he had with his own wife, is a really intriguing twist to what we already know about Jack.

It might not be totally ground-breaking in its execution, but it’s certainly a unique and interesting take on London’s most gruesome of histories. Although it doesn’t quite gleam like it wants to, it’s certainly worth your time as it’s brimming with potential and is none the less a provocative and entertaining evening.

RIP plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, on Sundays and Mondays until 21 July 2013. Tickets are £20.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.


Theatre Review: A Doll’s House (Young Vic, London)

Hattie Morahan (left) and Dominic Rowan (right). Photograph: Johan Persson. Courtesy of the Young Vic.

Hattie Morahan (left) and Dominic Rowan (right). Photograph: Johan Persson. Courtesy of the Young Vic.

Rating: ****

Henrik Ibsen’s domineering and shocking play about female independence gets a new version by Simon Stephens. When Nora (Hattie Morahan) and her family are on the cusp of achieving financial security an old debt comes back to haunt her, jeopardising everything. But how far can womanly self-reliance and ability get her in a society that views her as weak and subordinate?

There is something very Alfred Hitchcock in Carrie Cracknell’s production. Her innovative use of a revolve on which Ian MacNeil’s pristine Wendy House sits, coupled with Stuart Earl’s chilling score with echoes of Bernard Hermann, is captivating. Between scenes the house spins whilst life goes on within. Immaculate timing and well placed moments create some truly riveting effects, such as when Krogstad (Nick Fletcher) suddenly appearing as a dark stranger at the end of the hallway only to instantly spin out of sight. But the real genius of this is that it’s far from gimmick. It creates a faultless fluidity throughout the entire play on which the growing tension relentlessly compounds upon, creating an unbearable atmosphere throughout the auditorium – not unlike Hitchcock’s single-shot masterpiece Rope.

Stephens’ new version is also incredibly refreshing, natural, and flowing, something which Cracknell has effortlessly matched. Unlike some older versions he does away with clunky literal translations but ensures nothing is taken away from the context. Ibsen’s trademark infantile males and the flawed but bold strength of the women are not diminished, and Stephens’ still manages to include all the subtlety of imagery and profound and complex depth of characters that made Ibsen a master. Despite set and costume design suggesting that Cracknell has moved the time period forward a fair few decades from its 1879 premier, for something not far off 150 years old this version feels incredibly modern and relevant.

Furthermore Cracknell has an excellent cast behind the production. Morahan is just stupendous in what can only be described as a rocket-fuelled performance. She goes from blissfully composed, complete with hollow social airs and graces, to a woman desperately and frantically trying to keep face whilst her life falls apart at the seams. She is utterly engrossing to watch and brings a palpable intensity to Nora. Her support from Dominic Rowan as her insufferably doting, proud, and patronising husband, and Susannah Wise as her steadfast and fretful childhood friend, also lend themselves to an overall powerhouse production.

All criticisms are negligible. Cracknell’s attempt at creating an unstoppable follow-through production means that the length of the first act makes it bit of an endurance test. The variations in the energy inherent in the text causes the pace to falter a little, but ultimately it only tires because you do. Also, Fletcher isn’t quite as obviously sinister and devious as you feel his character should be, but this juxtaposition between character and portrayal adds more enigma than distraction.

Overall this production is magnificent. It’s almost impossible, given such a profound and gobsmacking impact it still has now, to imagine how enormous a shockwave it would have sent through late nineteenth century Norway. Cruel, compelling, and extreme this is an unparalleled thriller not to be missed.

A Doll’s House plays at the Young Vic, London, SE1 8LZ, until 20th April 2013. SOLD OUT. Please contact the theatre for information on returns and Day Tickets (www.youngvic.org).