Skip to content

Three Sisters: Almeida Theatre

May 15, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 27th April 2019).

Three women in a Russian military town, longing for the Moscow they left a decade ago. Rebecca Frecknall’s incredibly spare production strips Chekhov back to the absolute bone.

In this, Frecknall is aided by a clear version by Cordelia Lynn, working from the translation by Helen Rappaport (good programme article on the subject, incidentally). No heavy language, in fact, the first half in particular plays like a superior soap-opera – even though all the memorable portentous speeches are present as expected.

As Olga, Patsy Ferran is the marquee name, and her performance is the usual Ferran energy but tempered to suit the worn duty of her bereaved character.

Sisters Masha (Pearl Chanda) and Irina (Ria Zmitrowicz) complete the title trio. Well-chosen to illustrate the contrasting paths chosen, each has engaging character quirks. Chandra adopts a sophisticated London drawl. Even if it becomes a little “Snagglepuss” as her character grows older and jaded, it’s interesting. Zmitrowicz uses bursts of alternating energy and depression to good effect, her final despair moving and believable.

Brother Andrey (Freddie Meredith) is impressive – his scene with future wife Natasha (Lois Chimimba) a metre from the Monkey’s nose a lovely study in two actors trusting each other. As the play continues, both prove sound as he becomes selfish and she struggles with reality.

In the wider cast, Alexander (Peter McDonald) is a charming officer, his first scene a model of how to make an impact without needing to steal from those around him. Ivan (Alan Williams) makes a drunken doctor’s giving up on life a lesson to the rest of us, Anfisa (Annie Firbank) a sad figure ill-treated but with immaculate timing and a study in movement. Notes too for Ferapont (Eric MacLennan) and Nicolay (Shubham Saraf) for optimism.

The funeral opening is outstanding, and much of the staging – placing characters on a shelf above and to the right of the action is original and compelling. The final scene is perhaps a slight indulgence, as is an odd use of photography but neither are fatal to the work.

Sadly, the major flaw is the playing speed. Had the entire cast matched Ferran’s pace, there would have been fewer opportunities for the action to feel too slow. As it is, there is a meandering that doesn’t justify attention for the entire almost three hours. Still, the concept and acting are almost enough to cover the issue, and this is a production worth seeing.

3 stars.

Google Crushes Childrens’ Dreams

May 8, 2019

For those who don’t know, as well as Theatremonkey, I’m one of the founding admin team members for theatre discussion board theatreboard.co.uk. Born after the closure of a beloved discussion board over at Whatsonstage, for the past three years six volunteers have built the board to the point where it gets over 2 million page views each month.

Initially, those same six people dipped into our own pockets to meet the simple start-up costs. As popularity grew, we saw an opportunity to do a little good – giving back to the theatre community we love, as well as putting the site onto a more stable financial footing.

We achieved this by first paying our discussion board hosting service a (traffic-dependent) fee to let us choose our own advertising for the spaces they usually filled on our board.

Kind help from theatre industry experts and friends of mine lead us then to partnering with an advertising media company, who placed paying advertisements on the board’s pages for us.

For almost two years this went so well that we were able to not only cover the costs of keeping the site going, but far more wonderfully, use the surplus to make (board member voted on) donations at Christmas of over £1000 to tiny organisations helping the community through theatrical techniques.

On 12th February 2019 this year, it all came crashing down, when an email arrived from our marketing company informing us that,

“your site has been removed from any of their advertising demand due to invalid account activity. This can be anything from bot traffic, incentivised traffic, manipulation of ads, encouraging users to support the site through ad interaction or deceptive ad placement. It really can be any of these and unfortunately they do not tell us any specific information why they have blocked the site (nor will they) and there is no right of appeal.

Google has the sole discretion to determine instances of invalid activity. We treat invalid activity very seriously, analyzing all clicks and impressions to determine whether they fit a pattern of use that might artificially drive up an advertiser’s costs or a publisher’s earnings. If we determine that a network partner account might pose a risk to our advertisers, we may disable that account to protect our advertisers’ interests”

Our hosting service is long established and very well known, it does everything to comply with known rules and so of course did the marketers and us administrators. The email passed down to us by Google was a bolt-from-the-blue, a total shock… and fatal.

The marketing company’s “account manager” at Google proved a stone wall, and nothing our marketing friends (who fought valiantly for over a month) nor ourselves tried, in order to make up for that blockage, could make up for the loss.

Google is “judge, jury and executioner” when it comes to online advertising it seems. An algorithm decides; and conviction followed by death is without warning or appeal. Along with other cases I later found online, we were terminated without reason, warning or opportunity for discussion.

Fall foul of Google, nobody else will touch you. It is the end.

The upshot of it all is that, thanks to Google, and solely to Google, there will be no more donations to charity. Strong financial management (basically, making Scrooge look like Bob Geldof) means theatreboard itself has enough basic funds for the board to continue for many years to come, provided the essentials don’t increase exponentially in price.

Theatreboard’s admin team can still “rent out” advertising spaces ourselves if we wish to. However, it means that organisations who want to target our theatrical types specifically will have to pay far more to do so as those advertising spaces will be far more expensive for us to rent on the “as required” basis, rather than the previous happy system.

Outside of those times, theatreboard readers will be bombarded with advertising way outside of our control, for products and services we wouldn’t wish them to be exposed to. We won’t earn anything from that – the chance for good things to come of it all… lost.

For those who think “do no evil” is a pretty cool company slogan… it is… trouble is, they don’t believe it, and absolutely everybody else suffers as a result.

Last Christmas, at theatreboard reader’s vote, www.childrenandarts.org.uk received £500 from Theatreboard’s advertising surplus. 10 underprivileged children – some even from hospices – got a year’s place each, thanks to our scheme.

Google will now directly deprive other disadvantaged children of such life-changing places. Certainly, they have stomped with Herculean might on the tiniest flames of hope our chosen charity kindled within those kids. It’s even quite possible they deprived the world of great actors of the future.

How evil is that? I think we all know the answer.

When theatre visits bite back…

April 17, 2019

To open with a famous quote from “Clueless” – kindly reminded by good friend and Angeloloigst Dr Garside, “’My doctor said I should avoid sports where balls fly at my nose’ ‘Well that’ll cut into your social life then.”

Sports may be dangerous, but I’m now half-convinced theatre is out to kill me. Last year, I avoided death from, variously: actors tripping and falling on me (and not the ones I wouldn’t mind falling on me, either, worse luck), various flying hair-grips, light-bulbs and most notably some sort of medicine ball intended for joyous effect, but lethal. The last, in fact, still has my dentist concerned (impact injuries can take up to 18 months to show, he says).

We all know the risks of sitting in the front row. Aside from the less mathematically-gifted, or just plain lazy, fellow audience member using the space (whether there or not) to cross from one side of the theatre to the other, trampling on those seated; the major risk is a shower of spit and sweat from the stage. A few weirdoes welcome the DNA sample, cherishing it on a tissue. The rest of us carry antiseptic spray and hope the cast’s vaccinations are up-to-date.

Navigating the building is always fun. Not many people know that when many West End theatres were built, there were great tax-breaks relating to the number of stairs installed. The more, and the less noticeable, the more tax relief, allegedly. For today’s audiences, it’s a case of always being aware. It’s a step from street to foyer, then the odd one or two more just inside the door. Perhaps 15 (plus a little one you won’t see until the last second) to the stalls, and 500 up to the cheap seats. And watch for the uneven floors and carpets held down by duct tape, too.

Adding to the amusement, funding cuts mean you can’t use the convenient fire exit to leave at the end, so the whole crowd has to negotiate a single flight of stairs on the way out. Hope everybody sees every step or it’s a sponsored domino-topple for all.

Of course, if the stairs don’t get you, the swinging doors will. By law, theatre doors are made of rock rather than wood, and heavily lubricated. The solid brass fittings are spiked in tribute to the “Iron Maiden” and sharpened before every performance.

Each winter, and indeed summer, those with weak immune systems receive free tickets from all major shows. The auditorium climate control system’s filters are sent off for refurbishing, and thus there is nothing to prevent those lovely coughed-up germs from spreading like wildfire over a couple of hours – a nice loud honking alerting the healthy where to turn for the latest incoming attack. The best theatres send these people after the rest of the audience to sit beside us on the tube on the way home, too.

Finally, of course, the big one. You’ll probably have bought your tickets at home, and the shock of the price will have worn off. However, it is noticeable that many theatre foyers now have defibrillation devices installed in prominent positions. These include by the programme seller (I mean, £5 – I used to pay that for a ticket, a good stalls ticket), and most of all by the theatre bar. These days you can’t afford the stiff drink needed to read the price list – the price-per-glass is enough to get the first-aider charging the paddles, before you even get to the per-bottle section.

All in the name of entertainment, I guess, and if you don’t like the show, at least you can have fun wondering if you will survive to the end…

 

And on that note, I’m off for a couple of weeks. Back blogging on 8th May. Happy Easter / Passover to those celebrating them.

Maggie May: Finborough Theatre

April 10, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 7th April 2019)

Last year it was the turn of Lionel Bart’s “Twang” to get an uproarious revival on the London fringe. This time, the more successful “Maggie May” (Adelphi Theatre, 1964 as the programme reminds us) is given a thoughtful outing in the even smaller Finborough auditorium.

Liverpool in the early 1960s was a cauldron of Union rules and religious beliefs, a mixture of poverty and humour, quick-witted creativity and most of all a quest for doing what was right under the toughest circumstances.

Bart and Owen give us the tale of prostitute Maggie May (Kara Lily Hayworth) and childhood friend Patrick Casey (James Darch). Her father was a drunken low-life, his a dockyard Union leader who died too soon. She ekes a living off the streets, he tries to become a docker like his father. The story is of refusing to handle guns destined to kill fellow stevedores in distant lands, and of a woman loving a man who is having his heart and soul torn apart.

No real Bart classic songs in this score, though several will be half remembered, including “D’Land of Promises” and even “Dey Don’t Do Dat T’Day.” Others land simply thanks to performance – “The World’s A Lovely Place” to name just one.

Truthfully, the book no longer hangs together, and the monkey was slightly confused by the motivation that lead to the ending. It’s a major flaw, but not sufficient to upset the entire show.

Sam Spencer Lane (choreographer) fills the tiny stage with dance routines far more vibrant than witnessed recently by the monkey at one horrible “West End” production. Dance Captain Michael Nelson ensures execution, though perhaps needs to work with a couple of the cast to ensure safety with their lifting technique. Matthew Iliffe (director) too has a command of the material and use of the traverse stage that allows the actors to engage fully with the entire audience at all times… a little too fully with the popcorn, please note, Mr Iliffe – picking it out of the coat for hours…

It’s a lively cast. Fresh from her triumph as Cilla, Kara Lily Hayworth takes on another Liverpool icon with gusto. A strong musical theatre actor, her voice perhaps sometimes yielding to the piano (Henry Brennan, the impressive sole accompanist) but retaining our sympathy to the end.

With James Darch, there’s an incredibly strong bond, and Darch inexhaustibly gives us a multiple layers from detached committed activist to vulnerable youngster – moving at will between them as required.

Old Dooley (David Keller) is equally impactful. What could have been a montone “elder” performance instead has a truth and depth that calibrates the younger actors’ present and future within the story. Likewise Mark Pearce (Willie Morgan) demonstrates where perhaps some of them could go. Opportunist, exploiting and using where he came from in order to forget – it’s strong work. A note too for his “neice” (Chloe Carrington) establishing herself to an entire room with mere body-language in both this and other ensemble roles.

Both Norah Mulqueen (Cathy McManamon) and Maggie’s friend Maureen O’Neilll (Natalie Williams – the “Moore” appears to have vanished since “Ballroom”) likewise make maximum impact in a short time. McManamon simply is a Northern Publican, while Williams has a wonderfully clear, strong voice, characterisation and stage presence to match.

The men in the ensemble fair well too. “D’Same Size Boots” is a riot of hat and coat swapping and excellent timing from Eric, T.C and Gene (Euan Bennet, Barnaby Taylor and Leon Kay) who also retain a balanced masculinity in their dock-working – not falling over an edge when the songs suggest they could. Augmented by Joshua Barton in the big protest scene “Union Cha-Cha” there is much good work done. Balladeer and Milkman Aaron Kavanagh too is sound in leading the opening to both acts in soulful voice.

That the Finborough is committed to bringing us these forgotten shows and stage them to a high standard is alone worthy of anyone’s time. Even where, as here, the material has faired less well, there is still much to enjoy.

 

3 stars (5 for the cast and creative team, though).

Theatre Marketing Crisis?

April 3, 2019

For those who missed it, back in February 2019 some fault in theatremonkey’s part of the world threw everybody off the telephone and internet for almost 14 days. Though after 4 I was able to rig a 4G Wifi dongle solution (most 4G providers were also down), it meant online time had to be rationed carefully as there was only very limited data transfer available – and speeds were not the usual 56Mb or more that get the job done.

This meant being able only to access theatre news on a few websites for short periods, and no browsing theatreboard.co.uk for the latest opinions and gossip.

What it also meant was being pretty much cut off from the entire theatre world. Living day to day with various streams of theatre news, the latest happenings – every press night, new production or booking period announcement, and on to which actors went off sick at the interval, and which performances got cancelled half way through – provide a steady flow.

Guess how much of this stuff is in the offline mainstream printed press, television or even BBC “Red Button” information text? Yes, that’s right, absolutely nothing. For four days straight, not a word about theatre in any newspaper (except the Baz Bamigboye column each Friday in the Daily Mail, bless them). Otherwise, nothing. Two West End openings were not reviewed anywhere in print, there’s no “listings” pages in the Evening Standard any more – a few adverts, but not the double-page comprehensive one of old. Likewise even “Time Out” magazine goes that route, as does “Metro.”

Had I been interested in football – no problem. Still pages of it at the back of every newspaper, even non-league teams get the odd mention of how they are doing. I was able to read about the Super Bowl, and the Joshua fight negotiations too.

I don’t know if the newspapers have given up on theatre, or theatre marketing have given up on newspapers – I suspect a mixture of both… one thing I do know is that this situation is worse than terrible and will continue no matter what.

Already, fewer young people are going to the theatre, and the West End in particular keeps going on elderly regulars, the odd “star play” and hit musical, plus inflating tickets to enormous prices when they think they can get an audience.

My isolation from anything happening lead me to conclude that there is NOTHING getting out to the wider world beyond those who already know and care. State schools don’t teach drama and can’t take children to the theatre as there is no money for either, and precious little political will. The chances of anyone after school reading, hearing or seeing anything about theatre at all is apparently almost nil (being fair “All About Eve” got some coverage thanks to Anderson / James). In other words, unless you are lucky enough to have a private (fee-paying) education or someone highly theatre-motivated in your life now, forget it.

Sure, there’s a broader thing of panto undergoing massive revival, thanks to the high-profile Palladium, so there’s a tiny chance one family tradition is being revived, but that’s as far as it goes in the mainstream, I’d guess.

Judging by the number of emailed press releases I get about productions, the PR agents are a hard-working lot, but they are clearly having no success whatsoever getting big media to listening to them. Is the solution for some to band together to produce free or sponsored content that cash-strapped media outlets could use direct to fill pages? Are producers themselves being given all the information they need about marketing, from marketing agencies? Are the marketing agencies themselves stuffed with young people who never had the newspaper habit and don’t think investigating it is worthy of their time or client’s money?

I just don’t know. All I do know is that if you are not online and already know exactly where to look for theatrical news and information, there’s nothing else out there. Fact. And anyone in the theatre industry who doesn’t find that one of the scariest things ever needs to wise up, and fast. That is all.

 

Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train: Young Vic Theatre

March 27, 2019

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 16th March 2019).

Two men in jail. “Superstar” Lucius Jenkins (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and young Angel Cruz (Ukweli Roach). Lawyer Mary Jane Hanrahan (Dervla Kirwan) attempts to help Cruz. Guard Charlie D’Amico (Matthew Douglas) has some sympathy for Jenkins. Guard Valdez (Joplin Sibtain) just wants the prisoners to know their places.

On a traverse stage with ingenious prison doors, two hours of regularly authentic dialogue reveal more about each character through monologue and interaction.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play varies from very good to – later in the second act – uncompromising, with the odd stunning moment. To try to shock all the time would be fruitless, and one mental image created is more than enough. Keeping authenticity is more important, balanced with engaging story-telling and background that a play requires. Here, Guirgis succeeds almost entirely, very few moments slipping more towards “theatre literate” than cellblock.

Director Kate Hewitt does a sound job of keeping the play’s pace steady, never rushing or slowing for emphasis, so that each revelation feels natural. Her blocking of the actors to play to all sides of the auditorium is a lesson in how it should be done, certainly a technique for some others to follow in future.

Key team Imogen Knight (movement) recognises ‘jail house shuffle’ and provides a sense of confinement, with Magda Willi’s set design helping with angles and Guy Hoare lighting with near unrelenting grimness and just one wall of hope. Kinnetia Isidore knows that orange is the new black, and neatly mutes Kirwan’s outfit to blend with just a dash of colour. Peter Rice provides dischord, with the odd telling diversion as sound designer, and not a word is lost in the space.

Adjepong keeps his central character focussed, building into one persona a complex man and delivering a reality with understated emphasis. Roach tells us plenty about the young man in his opening scene and manages to raise more questions than are answered as his story unfolds.

Both he and Kirwan are definers of truth – whose, is the key. Kirwan’s story is the most baldy sketched, and her performance is utterly convincing. Those who know her work will be impressed at another revelation of her extensive range.

Sibtain gets some excellent stage space, making us wonder if he is brutal or simply brutalised by the system he is enforcing. The contrast with Douglas’s affable “All American” is a strength of the production both in the performances and writing.

The whole effect is to raise exactly whom we are imprisoning and exactly how they got to that stage in their lives. That this play is now more than a decade old, with the same questions being asked is concerning. That the Young Vic have given it such a strong staging is important, and we can only hope the right audience may see and learn from what it asks.

 

4 stars.

Richard III: Alexandra Palace Theatre (and touring)

March 20, 2019

(seen at the afternoon performance on 17th March 2019).

Always striking this Theatremonkey as “The Sopranos” in the Bard’s canon, it’s all about ‘rubbing out’ the opposition… and not always for the clearest of motives, either.

Director John Haidar rather grasps this in the casting of Tom Mothersdale in the title role. A cross between Sylvester McCoy, Rik Mayall and Blackadder I and II, Mothersdale is a gleeful psychopath, engaging the audience at will and quite extraordinary as his charisma filling the vast Victorian hall.

Kicking off with the end of “Henry VI, Part III” rather than Richard’s usual attempt to sell his old camping equipment (“Now is the winter of our discount tents” etc) is curious but not unwelcome. There’s a certain context provided in the description of twisted birth that resonates through the twisted life beyond.

Caught in the cross-fire is love Anne (forlorn work by Leila Mimmack), while hench-people survive or fall according to Richard’s whim. Heledd Gwynn (Hastings) is a superb assassin, and probably isn’t asked to make Green Room tea that often during this run – particularly by Tom Kanji (Clarence, and also a creepily willing and conspiratorial Catesby).

Only a mother could love a son like Richard, but Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas) gets a particularly good scene in which she makes her feelings known, literally putting her son down among the people.

Grounded daughter Elizabeth (Derbhle Crotty) is a strong stage presence, not only stabilising in her role, but as an actor anchoring effectively her scenes. Likewise Buckingham (Stefan Adegbola) knows how to make an entrance and impact.

Edward (Michael Matus) gets to drift through the show to great effect – nabbing the best of Annelies Henny’s outfit designs. Henry (John Sackville) has clarity in his lines and control when physical work is needed. Richmond (Caleb Roberts) also makes the most of his military moments and final battle. If the final line is repeated a little too often in the last scene, no matter, it’s an interesting ending.

There isn’t too much illumination of the text, and the play feels a little small for the vast building – though shows it off to great effect near the end of act one as action spills to the circle slips. Chiara Stephenson keeps the set simple with mirrors reflecting both the action and themes in the text, with a crown hovering until required. Elliot Grigg’s ring of strip lighting above it underlining the action in various colours.

Probably going to work better as it tours to smaller venues, it’s worth picking up for the trade mark Headlong modernity and fresh angle, and most of all for the central performance that proves Shakespeare does gangland like nobody else.

3.5 stars.

 

For an opinion of the Alexandra Palace Theatre itself and a seating plan, see www.theatremonkey.com..