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Standing at The Sky’s Edge

Standing At The Sky’s Edge’s portrayal of high-rise communities in the iconic concrete housing estate could hardly be bettered.

It’s an evocative setting.

Park Hill was built in the 1950’s as a solution to the city’s social housing. This new musical is all about that estate, its residents and is something very special indeed. It celebrates the people, place and  times.

Written by Chris Bush and with songs by Richard Hawley this new musical delicately tells the story of three very different families through generations in the 1960s, 80s, and 2000s on Sheffield’s most notorious estate. 

The songs? 

Well, here, Hawley’s lethargic northern atmospheric music sound like being punched in the face feels, in a good way. As comforting as a premium whiskey. 

The music pulses and then retracts before erupting in emotional outbursts. The results are kind of brilliant: a show of world-beating standard yet still intimate and gentle, a cherishing of the mundane, a blast of the everyday, a love of life. 

The story? Bush’s book cleverly tells the tale of three generations of Park Hill tenants. The words probably read like quirky poetry on the page but they cut through the air with wit & warmth when spoken. 

It is inevitably kaleidoscopic and somewhat beautifully fragmented, leaving the audience to piece together the connections. It’s political too; unpacking the destructive role of class in British society. It feels vital in its portrait of a divided nation.

Technically, Alex Young delivers an all-round emotionally true performance that grips from the start with ‘Lady Solitude’. Nevertheless, a fine cast shine consistently.

In the best possible sense, Standing At The Sky’s Edge is like a 21st Century Blood Brothers: authentic socialist principles intact, a gripping story and frankly sensational songs.

We get the industrial pain, Thatcher despair, Brexit Britain & more, it wears its political heart on its sleeve. It isn’t West End razzle dazzle, it is theatre rooted in its time(s) and place. 

There are some big gloriously unifying moments, too — all the ingredients are here for a massive crossover theatre moment, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving creative team. 

In Act 1 closing number ‘There’s a Storm A-Comin’ a sofa is lobbed off a balcony, litter bins are emptied across the stage & the current political crisis context lends the audacious choreography  an added intensity. 

Robert Hastie’s production delights in being visceral. Ben Stone’s concrete multi-level design are to be both stunningly simple and enchanting; it all adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Seriously, this show made grown men around me weep, made me fall deeper in love with Sheffield than I have ever been before, could save as many relationships as it ignites. It touched people around me deeply. 

Act 2 swells the heart completely and invites the audience in with the unavailingly stirring ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ during this storming scene the company takes off; ensemble are startlingly confrontational. 

I mean, bloody hell. 

Later on, intimacy suits: ‘After The Rain’ is so fragile as to nearly come apart at the seams. Importantly, it was a lot of fun.

This is a musical that, in Robert Hastie’s beautifully clear production, left the heart full & the brain buzzing. 

Standing at The Sky’s Edge deserves to transfer to our Royal National Theatre. 

Cheers, Rufus. 

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Top Shows of 2017 (According to me)

Theatre’s great isn’t it? Well not all of it – some of it is shit. 

Anyway, 2017 has been a terrific year for theatre – through which I have tried to do what most of the theatre media forgot to do – salute theatre’s good bits, even if doing so required shining a light on the bad bits… 

As 2018 rolls around, I’ve published my annual list of half-decent stuff from the last twelve months below.

  1. Angels in America – National Theatre, London.

Subtitled “a gay fantasia on national themes”, over two extensive plays – separately titled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika – lasting a combined total of eight hours. The cast was led by the seriously good Andrew Garfield, Russell Tovey, Denise Gough and Nathan Lane. The revelatory performance and superb focal point was Garfield’s Prior Walter. 

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Andrew Garfield in Angels in America 

Everything was exquisite, Marianne Elliott’s direction completely breathtaking, the overall vision both flawlessly plotted and magnificently executed. And it’s the only show on this list without a single dud moment. The National’s timely revival of Tony Kushner’s play was 100% superb.

Angels in America heads to Broadway from February 2018, so well done everyone. 

  1. Follies – National Theatre, London. 

James Goldman and Stephen Sondheim’s 1971 musical was close to perfection. It felt like a genuinely special theatre experience, and when was the last time you felt like that about a thing?

Director Dominic Cooke delivered a really incredible, dramatic happy-sad musical of epic proportions. Every performance was sublime – from Tracie Bennet’s scene-stealing Carlotta to Janie Dee’s dynamic Phyillis.

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Follies

No other musical in 2017 tried quite this hard to be amazing, and no other musical production succeeded in as many ways.

It is fair to say that this is one of the greatest musicals I’ve ever seen. Bill Deamer’s choreography blurred real life and performance to spectacular effect enveloping us in in an emotional no man’s land, unsure where artifice began.

Follies allowed us to see and feel Sondheim’s classic in exhilarating new ways.

Glorious, glorious, glorious.

3. An American In Paris – Dominion Theatre, London. 

Christopher Wheeldon’s stage adaptation of the 1951 film was simply wonderful.

In its best moments, An American in Paris pulled off the trick of homaging multiple sources while looking and sounding like nothing else; a musical at its sophisticated and unhurried best.

George and Ira Gershwin’s irresistible songs coupled with beautiful dance was largely enhanced by Bob Crowley’s stunning design.

The company was fortunate to be led by the insanely talented New York City Ballet dancer Robbie Fairchild and Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope; both sang, acted and danced sensationally. Remarkable stuff. 

N.B. Ashley Day took over from Fairchild as Jerry Mulligan in July and was quite splendid. So well done to Ashley.

4. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

A decadent, pensive and astute production.

It says something about the high standard of theatre in Britain that Imelda Staunton – nominated for 2017’s Evening Standard Awards in the Best Actress category for her portrayal as Martha, didn’t win. Staunton was a razor-sharp maniac in this role and demonstrated yet again to be one of our finest & fiercest Stage performers.

Director James Macdonald matched a breathtaking Staunton with a tremendous Conleth Hill and cut straight to the plays dark, throbbing heart.

Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots held their own too, in this disturbing portrait of marital relationships gone wrong.

Edward Albee’s savage play remains, of course, a completely chilling, classic masterpiece.

  1. An Octoroon – Orange Tree, Richmond. 

As a theatre fan it’s hard to beat the feeling of finding out about a show early on and seeing something special. It’s hard to beat the feeling of seeing it in tiny, little theatres before they’re at the National Theatre, then championing it to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s hard to beat the sensation of seeing that play take a bold and brilliant step forward and being able to say to yourself: I was there.

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Ken Nwoso in An Octoroon 

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins reworking of a slave drama was both new and old; an adaptation of a 19th-century melodrama and a biting modern critique of it.

Directed with radical aplomb by Ned Bennett, it was Ken Nwoso’s energetic performance, however, that branded itself on the mind. 

A masterclass in smart theatre and a first-rate cast made this unforgettable viewing.

‘FYI’ An Octoroon will transfer to the National Theatre in June 2018. Don’t miss. 

Note:

1. Have I missed anything? Let me know E: mrcarlwoodward@gmail.com – I’ll publish some of the best suggestions.

2. I feel a bit bad about ‘The Ferryman’ not being on the list – it probably should have been. OH WELL.)

 

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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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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

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

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

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:

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

‘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

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