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Review: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

Cometh the hour, cometh the show directed by Marianne Elliott, the inaugural show for Elliott & Harper Productions, the company she has set up with director Chris Harper.

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It’s fair to say that expectations were high… But as anyone will tell you in these difficult theatre times, coming up with the show can be the easy bit, and selling it is where things get tricky.

Simon Stephens’ play, first seen at Manhattan Theatre Club, is set at a London train station and tells the unusual story of two strangers who strike up a relationship as a result of the manic Georgie, played by Anne-Marie Duff hitting on Kenneth Cranham’s Alex, while he sits on a bench at St Pancras International. Cranham is spellbinding as a 75-year old butcher. His earthiness is shattered by the arrival of Georgie: 33 years his junior.

This is not your everyday sort of love story, but it winds up feeling both strange and familiar. Stephens’ complex two-hander is as much about romance and ulterior motives as it is about Werner Heisenberg’s physics theory.

Heisenberg is one of the plays of the year – a ninety-minute, intriguing production with the same captivating quality of true spectacle. The heart-breaking pairing of Duff and Cranham manages to encapsulate regret and hopefulness all at once.

Theatre sometimes revels brilliantly in its own meaninglessness. Other times, as here, it hits the spot when it stops being about nothing, turns its nose up at being about something, and fluently manages to be about everything. The questions it throws up about identity, attraction and love collide with a vastness that I’ve rarely experienced in a theatre.

Paule Constable’s gorgeous lighting glues style and substance together in an irresistible modern theatre collage. One of the most electrifying moments comes during an effortless scene transition with Duff trapped between the two walls. Thinking about it in the cold light of day, it all plays better in memory than in real-time. This is an accessible but immensely rewarding watch, and the music by Nils Frahm has an intriguing emotional reach that captures the sparse mood perfectly too.

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Ann-Marie Duff – amazing –

Other points are genuinely touching. But is that all there is to Heisenberg? Well, not quite –the duo’s chemistry will only flourish in enjoyable new directions as the production runs. There’s more to the writing and the performances than a first viewing might let on.

Not everything is sensational; Steven Hoggett’s movement sequences don’t always work. A section where the pair clumsily tango isn’t really that great. Intelligent choreography does more at the same time as it does less, making fewer things more impressive, making smaller statements count for more. When the choreography does hit the spot – it more than makes up for this.

Basically, Heisenberg doesn’t knock the planet off its axis quite as nimbly as theatre fans will have predicted. Maybe that was the point. On one hand, it’s not exactly Angels In America in the landmark stakes, on the other Elliott and Harper have come up with exciting ways to work in the West End and at least it isn’t Oscar Wilde.

Whether a prelude to an exclusion order or a heart-warming tale of encounter, Heisenberg is an extraordinary addition to Simon Stephens canon of recent experimental work; considerate and romantic enough for repeated viewing, but with a theatre sensibility that makes you want to head out in search of a stranger at a train station and live for the moment. Think of this as a controlled explosion.

At Wyndham’s, London, until 6 January. Box office: 0844-482 5120.

Access Booking 0344 482 5137.

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Five Things You Should Know About Follies

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1.    Let’s cut to the chase: Follies contains some of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen in a musical.

It features Stephen Sondheim veterans Philip Quast, Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee. Most incredible of all, the way this sparkly ensemble revisit their former lives from 30 years ago to when they first met while working as Follies dancers. The ghosts of the past send shivers up your spine. Also, Tracie Bennett in particular steals the show on a few occasions in a hall of mirrors for all shades of misery

2.    With a near 30-year history and a world-class reputation, Sondheim shows are no strangers to the National Theatre (Judi Dench appeared in ‘A Little Night Music’ in the Olivier, 1995 and Philip Quast in ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ in the Lyttelton Theatre, 1990 etc, etc and so on).

It’s hard to avoid the fact that most of Follies’ action takes place on a stage revolve resembling a merry-go-round in West Side Story. The beauty of this show lies in the precision that draws the multi-layered elements together.

3.    There are incredibly few directors who could carry off at least three quarters of this show. Dominic Cooke’s production for the National Theatre has kept the songs in the faithful style – the orchestra are sublime – but when Imelda delivers a refreshingly devastating low-key version of ‘Losing My Mind’, it’s the night’s highlight. A haunting exploration of character.

This is an inventively staged production with a cast and the arrangements are of a phenomenally high standard. As well as being expertly written the majority of these songs are also skilfully structured and only serve to reaffirm Sondheim’s Godlike genius.

 

4.    The choreography itself is beautiful, reflecting the sorrow, torment and human resilience in both the music and the performances. Everything slots perfectly into place in this magnificent evocation of showbiz. Sweeping across the stage are buckets of Swarovski crystals, sashes, sequined frocks and outfits that reel you in from start to finish.

This is the first time Dominic Cooke has directed a musical. Luckily, there’s a clarity of vision that’s practically unrivalled in the current musical theatre scene. Follies feels effortlessly enchanting.

5.    Vicky Mortimer’s show-making set and costume design uses a crumbling theatre on a revolving set to remind us how the characters’ lives are confined and ravaged by theatre; Bill Dreamer’s vivid choreography, deserves a mention again, his work with ‘Loveland’ pays hymn to the showbiz past; and the orchestra has a glorious, brassy ring.

The production’s centrepiece – to these eyes, anyway – is ‘I’m Still Here’, a track for which Apple Music single song repeat function could well have been invented. A dazzle to watch. 

But the show is not perfect and I can see people’s concerns about Imelda’s suitability as a ‘Showgirl’ or that her vocals may be underpowered. They are missing the point; these things add to the charm of the production. The no interval thing is a bit crap….

Nevertheless, nothing is left to chance here, folks.

I make that a considered, authoritative and concrete 9/10. Also: Looks like my work here is done. Time to go to the pub.

Follies runs in the Olivier Theatre at the National until 3 January.

‘FYI’ Follies will be broadcast by NT Live to cinemas in the UK and internationally on Thursday 16 November.

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Alright, theatre needs a kick up the arse

Wind In The Willows

Most of the West End and supporting media is populated by the manliest men with manliest tastes, who only produce or consider the existence of theatre because they need to tick boxes and make what they perceive to be easy cash.

No wonder so much theatre is so joyless. It got me thinking…

You see the size of the task dear old Stiles and Drewe set themselves when producer Jamie Hendry decided it would be a good idea to put one of the best loved children’s stories of all time on the biggest stage in London and they should write the music. Naturally, they wrote 20 songs.

The good news, though, is that this is a brand new British musical. (An exotic bird in the woods of the West End). The bad is that, in line with the tide of right-on idiocy that is overwhelming British Theatre, (see: Freddie Flintoff cast in Fat Friends The Musical/ Louise Redknapp in Cabaret & John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles, I could go on) someone thought that Julian Fellowes would be a good candidate to white-wash and straight-wash The Wind in the Willows.

It’s all too easy, however, to get side-tracked by the visual assault of Rachel Kavanaugh’s production when you’re watching this stage version of Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 children’s novel slowly, slowly unfold with a ‘celebrity’ cast that is going through the motions. Cringe-making embarrassment, though, isn’t restricted to Hound and co.

The whole thing is a mess.

There is no cohesive vision in The Wind in the Willows; it lacks depth that would give it savour. ‘Property is theft!’ is blathered at some point. You won’t be singing or dancing your way out of the building – that’s for sure.

I can’t remember much else to be honest.

I don’t need to labour my contempt for it too much, however, as the merchandise for that matter, says it all.

As horrendous as it all may sound for you reading this online – shows like this are actually a lot less appealing in the flesh. Worse still, the show includes veiled attacks on the poor, clumsy class politics, a 3 hour running time and a woozy design.

Anyway, I propose that:
1.Theatre like this is not pandered to.
2.Shows like this are *largely* ignored.
3.Commercial junk written and produced and performed by a largely all-white cast are left to get on with it in private, away from the West End and hard-up families.

Basically, theatre needs to work harder. I don’t care if it’s a new musical. There needs to be a rethink – audiences deserve much better when they are paying these kinds of prices.

Just think of my manifesto as having builders in. A lengthy stretch of hellish with (mostly) white men you don’t know making a lot of noise as they destroy everything you once held dear. But then, when it’s all over, you’re all set up to have a massive dinner party.

Naturally I will be here throughout the whole fiasco, and continue to find the good bits of theatre — whether they’re fashionable or not.

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REVIEW: Angels in America

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‘The Girls’ boasts a solid female cast, inventive design and score and makes for a successful screen-to-stage transfer

The Girls

Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s The Girls 

Phoenix Theatre, London.  

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The Girls

The Girls © Carl Woodward

Following a ‘tryout’ last year at The Leeds Grand Theatre and The Lowry in Manchester, ‘The Girls’ boldly finds itself lighting up the West End. Gary Barlow and Tim Firth’s new musical – based on the 2003 film Calendar Girls, is a delight to behold.
The solid female cast, inventive design and score, make for a successful screen-to-stage transfer. Joanna Riding as Annie is a safe pair of hands,providing a poignant portrayal of marital loss; how will she cope alone in Tesco and Scarborough?
Firth’s production, Lizzi Gee’s musical staging and Tim Lutkin’s lighting, between them, overcome the problem of putting topography on stage; transporting us to Yorkshire Dales. Robert Jones’s set comprises moving kitchen cabinets, inventively framed, creating a dynamic landscape.
Debbie Chazen as Ruth with her “Russian Friend”, gives us a brutal, but hilarious glimpse at the place we feel most afraid to look when everything ahead seems too much to bear. There are some wonderful ensemble performances from the cast. Firth’s staging boasts half a dozen spot-on performances.
In a show with patchwork lyrics, plenty of Northern humour and more than a few cliches, the score is somewhere between mid-tempo and up-tempo, and breezes along for a good stretch with age-defying liberation.
The book is good enough as entertainment, with meaningful overtones of love and loss, rendered with authentic emotional effectiveness.
There is not a weak link in the casting, but the standout performance comes from the bereft Annie, so beautifully full of life. Things really get going in Act Two with the cheeky ladies doing traditional WI things like jam-making and floristry in the nude for their fundraising calendar.
At times Firth and Barlow’s production underuses its design and is a little laboured, but beneath its veneer ‘The Girls’ reminds us that true friendship can overcome even the most challenging of times.

Some photos from THE GIRLS Opening Night, Tuesday 21 February 2017

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Beth Iredale’s take on The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon
Ms Beth Iredale took a trip to see the popular musical. She did a drawing.
The Tony and Olivier Award-winning production is from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone and follows a couple of Mormon boys sent on a mission.
The Book of Mormon is currently running at the Prince of Wales Theatre. Click HERE to book your tickets
The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon. © Beth Iredale

Text -The Book of Mormon.

Text -The Book of Mormon. © Beth Iredale

Guest Blog – Beth Iredale’s ‘Dedication’ sketch review

Sketch Review - Dedication

Beth Iredale took part in the original Young Critics project at Theatre Royal Winchester in 2015. Her drawings are a very impressive critical response in the world of online noise.

We went to watch  ‘Dedication directed by Sam Hodges earlier this week at The Nuffield in Southampton.

To say Beth is a promising critical voice would be a gross understatement. Okay great.

You can check out an article she wrote (Exeunt) as well as her sketch reviews here  >> Edinburgh Festival Sketchbook .

Talking about the illustrations done for Dedication, Beth says: “These drawings are a visual expression of the play. This show is built around such passionate design, it seems only right to showcase it. Alex Lowde is on top form. The  illustrations are captioned with quotes from the show. “I’d rather use them to allude to the content instead of describing it” she says.

Sketch review by Beth Iredale of the play  Dedication at Nuffield Theatre in the gallery below:

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SKETCH REVIEW – DEDICATION

You can follow Beth Iredale at:
Twitter @_BethLawless
Instagram _Bethlawless

You can also read my Sam Hodges interview here. Well done everyone.

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Us/Them – a crisp, witty, playful and stylish piece of physical theatre for young audiences

Us/Them is taking Summer Hall by storm. And rightly so. It is a highly impressive piece of physical theatre. This is a crisp, witty, playful and stylish piece for young audiences by Belgian Theatre company Bronks and has super producer Richard Jordan‘s fingerprints all over it.

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Click the image to book your tickets for Us/Them

This striking show tells the story of the 2004 siege of a school by Chechen separatist with breathtaking originality.

The opening section set the tone for the piece, which plays across a range of emotions, as humour and  playfulness coexist with much darker and disturbing content. The harrowing, yet innovative storytelling are edited and integrated from the start of performance, providing a narrative from which the rest of the piece extended.  Skillfulness of movement and expression is evident in the way text is rendered.

What really stands out is the strong communication with the audience through vocal and facial work supported by building anticipation as to what was coming next.

A range of dynamics within movement work prevent any slippage of attention. This means that when the surprises in the devastatingly simple set design are unveiled, a strong theatrical context is created.

This two hander is played electrically by Gytha Parmentier, Roman Van Houtven.
Their duet sequences are magnificently developed to remind the audience of the tragic story of the siege we hear but through subtle re-working of imagery rather than anything sentimental. I’ll never look at chalk in the same way again.

CLICK HERE TO BOOK YOUR TICKETS FOR US/THEM

Pigs and Dogs – Caryl Churchill communicates with vigour, that socially, politically and historically – we’ve got a long way to go

Pigs and Dogs at The Royal Court Theatre.

‘You Western-backed goats,
They forced us into slavery and killed millions. Now they want us to accept the sinfulness of homos.It shall not work.’

Pigs and Dogs at The Royal Court Theatre.

Pigs and Dogs at The Royal Court Theatre. © Alastair Muir

Both excitingly well made and strikingly formulaic. The three highly diverse leads are uniformly excellent. Sharon D Clarke is effortless in Caryl Churchill’s pertinent new play.

The title of the play is borrowed from  President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who said, “If dogs and pigs don’t do it, why must human beings?”

Pigs and Dogs boasts fine performances and nimble direction by Dominic Cooke. It doesn’t entirely evade the issue at its core – a brief history of homophobia and anti-homosexuality laws – instead it efficiently embraces the subject. Characters collide regardless of race or gender in a thrilling fifteen minutes.

This engaging piece succeeds well at what it sets out to do: wrapping an important message in a story told by rich voices. Nevertheless, both excitingly well made and dispiritingly formulaic; the actors pace the stage. The play is substantially based on material from ‘Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands’ by Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe.

A riveting short which, were it fiction, might be disbelieved as dystopia. For me, Churchill communicates, with vigour, that socially, politically and historically – we’ve got a long way to go.

Cast (in alphabetical order)
Fisayo Akinade
Sharon D Clarke
Alex Hassell

Director: Dominic Cooke
Lighting Designer: Jack Williams
Sound Designed: David McDeveney
Costume Supervisor: Lucy Walshaw
Stage Manager: Caroline Meer
Dialect Coach: Hazel Holder

Unreachable – a fascinating theatrical experiment that represents ego and art without being overbearing

Matt Smith in Unreachable

Anthony Neilson’s hilarious new play is about a director going through a difficult time. It is like a rush of blood to the head. After five weeks of much publicised unscripted rehearsals there’s no point in resisting – and there’s no need – because it is captivating.

Matt Smith in Unreachable

Matt Smith in Unreachable

As is the way with these things, it’s hard to get a proper feel for a play of this nature  on one viewing, but ‘Unreachable’ feels like a genuine attempt to steal the 2016 theatre throne, as well as being the kind of gloriously all over the shop production that you often get when the country’s acting and production cream of the crop decide that they all want to get involved with a writer while the theatre iron is extremely hot.

Is ‘Unreachable’ difficult to grasp? No. Neilson’s theme, in fact, is less than the crippling uncertainty that stems from not being comfortable in your skin. Leading a fine cast, Matt Smith is superb as the lost and troubled Maxim, intoxicating and uncomfortable to watch, like the show itself.

Though it suffers from tonal inconsistency everything is elevated by an excellent cast. There are off-kilter moments throughout, you’d expect that, but the subject matter and the hilarious performance of Jono O’Neill as Ivan goes a long way toward forgiving the play’s strange anomalies. This is an entertainingly alive psychodrama that hits many of the beats, but lacks depth.

The potency of the evening is magnified by Chloe Lamford’s monochrome design, in which black and white wash the set and cast, and four metallic screens frame the action on the stage. And like all Nielson’s work, this is likely to be a constant work in progress.
I’m already looking forward to the second coming of this show. Seriously, well done all concerned.

Unreachable is at the Royal Court, London, until August 6.
To book tickets, visit  www.royalcourtheatre.com or call 020 7565 5000