Hamlet, Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare, Leicester Square Theatre, London WC2

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The Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare Company, now Magnificent Bastard Productions, have been bringing various Shakespeare plays to theatres around the UK for a number of years. It is an improv styled show where one of the cast has drunk one third of a bottle of spirits and a number of beers before taking to the stage. The comedy comes from the sober actors attempts to keep their drunken compatriot onstage and on track.

It is great fun to watch and it also looks like it is great fun to take part. Drunken Hamlet takes pleasure in his leeway to make things difficult for the rest of the cast, trying to push them off course and attempting to make them laugh. There is audience participation, in that a couple of audience members are chosen to call for the drunk actor to have another drink if they feel that he is sobering up. Also, Polonius is played by an audience member, this is a brave choice, given that his is the first death scene and the only people on stage are the audience member, the drunk actor and Gertrude, his mother.

It is a good introduction to Hamlet, because it zips through the simplified storyline in around an hour and a half. Drunken Hamlet forgets his lines surprisingly seldom – he makes a great fist of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy despite being made to drink while reciting it- and those parts where he does get lost he has the professionalism to give the audience a synopsis of the scene in modern language.

Hamlet, of all Shakespeare’s plays, is the one that is most often taken too seriously and it is often forgotten that these plays were written as mass entertainment, and that the performances as well as the audiences were raucous and bawdy. This version emphasises that element of the Bard and works very well on that level. I really enjoyed Sh!t-Faced Shakespeare’s Hamlet and I look forward to seeing others in their repertoire in future.

The First Modern Man, Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1

Modern Man

Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.

However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.

The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.

I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.

 

The 10 Best Shows to book in London this December.

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  1. Romeo & Juliet. Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican. A contemporary version of the Shakespeare classic.
  2. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. The Palace Theatre. A really good story and brilliant special effects.
  3. Les Miserables. Queen’s Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue. This predates The London Lark, but it has been running so long because it is very good!don-quixote-lt
  4. Don Quixote. The Garrick Theatre. The Christmas show for people who don’t do panto!
  5. School of Rock. Gillian Lynne Theatre, Drury Lane. Very enjoyable musical, a bit corny but great fun.
  6. Summer and Smoke. Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane. Worth seeing for Patsy Ferran’s performance alone. Wonderful use of music at dramatic moments.
  7. Macbeth. Royal Shakespeare Company at The Barbican. Niamh Cusack and Christopher Ecclestone are fantastic in this.
  8. Follies. The National Theatre. Won the Olivier award for best musical revival last year, returning early next year and booking now. Sondheim in his prime, beautifully done.the-play-that-goes-wrong-5249
  9. The Play that goes Wrong. The Duchess Theatre, Covent Garden. This does exactly what it says on the tin. Very, very fanny! (Ha,Ha!)
  10. Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. The Apollo, Shaftsbury Avenue. Great Songs and a lovely uplifting story.

I have restricted the list to those shows that I have seen myself. There are a number of shows that I am sure will be wonderful but that I have not yet seen. Hamilton, which is on at the Victoria Palace appears to be universally loved. I am really looking forward to seeing Company at The Geilgud Theatre. The Inheritance at The Noel Coward Theatre looks like it will be fantastic too.

This list is obviously based on personal taste too. People who love Bat Out Of Hell, seem to really adore it and return regularly, although I have to say that I found the new songs less good than the originals and the story is poor. I do have to admit, though that some of the special effects are spectacular.

A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter might appeal, if you like your theatre to be a bit more off kilter. It is brim full of weird and unusual ideas, but it is not an easy watch and the realisation is not as polished as Martin McDonagh’s usual fare. You also need to be quick, as it is due to finish in early January.

So, if you are thinking of booking theatre tickets for London anytime this month, there is a show for you somewhere in this list. Enjoy!

 

Murder for Two, The Other Palace, London SW1

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The Studio at The Other Palace is an intimate theatre with a small stage and seating for about a hundred people. This is the perfect setting for this show, which is an affectionate homage to black and white murder mystery movies and to camp musical theatre. It is written by an American pair, Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair, who clearly have a love for both of the genres that they are sending up.

This is a two handed play, with Ed MacArthur playing the investigating officer and Jeremy Legat playing everybody else, apart from the moment when an audience member is brought onstage to play the death throes of a poisoned murder victim. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the quick changes between all the different characters, but soon with only a single prop and a shift in demeanour, Jeremy Legat has us following his transitions through the roles at breakneck speed.

Murder for Two is a madcap musical. It has eleven songs. Usually one of the pair plays the piano while the other sings and dances but there are duets or songs with multiple parts. The songs that have the officer interviewing three members of a boys choir, and an arguing married couple are particularly inventive. The lyrics in the songs are clever. “A Friend Like You” which opens the second act is particularly good.

The familiar elements of the story arc are magnified and made into a virtue, so that we can derive pleasure from knowing what is about to happen and laugh when it does. There are very funny lines in the dialogue, but the main comedy comes from the character portrayal. The intimacy of the theatre adds to the warmth of the performances, Ed MacArthur and Jeremy Legat have charisma and there was a personal connection with the audience.

Murder For Two is pure light entertainment, every trope from film noir and musical theatre has been thrown in the mix. The only thing that could have made it camper would have been the addition of a butler in a feather boa. It is on at The Studio of The Other Palace until 18 January. It is a witty and likeable presentation, a warm hearted murder mystery musical.

Summer and Smoke, Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2

Summer and Smoke

Summer and Smoke had a successful run at the Almeida theatre earlier in the year. The reviews at the time were ecstatic but tickets were impossible to get, so it was great news to hear that it had been given a West End transfer. When it was first produced, in 1948, it was the follow up to “A Streetcar Named Desire” but it did not match that play’s success. There have been revivals in the intervening years, but the only successful one has been the off Broadway version, with Geraldine Page as Alma, that was eventually made into the film with Laurence Harvey as John. Geraldine Page received an Oscar nomination for that part.

The set is a bare brick wall with seven pianos set in a semi circle facing it. These are played at the start, finish and at dramatic moments through the play. The rest of the stage is basically empty, save a few chairs brought on and removed as they are needed. The setting is the American deep south in the early 20th Century, classic Tennessee Williams territory. The story is too, a tale of unrequited love struggling against unbridled lust, set in a small American town in the sweltering heat of summer’s sultry climate.

Director, Rebecca Frecknall, has taken the decision to make this production revolve totally around Alma Winemiller. She is almost always on stage and on the rare occasions when she is not central, we are thinking about how this will affect her state of mind. This is a bold directing decision, but perfectly vindicated by Patsy Ferran’s performance as Alma. She is phenomenal, it is a career defining role and she drags us through every high and low. One of the toughest things for an actor to do is bring the audience with them when they have a life changing epiphany which totally reverses their world view, Patsy Ferran does this remarkably well, and if she does not win awards for her acting in this play, then I cannot wait to see the performance that beats it.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and provide brilliant support. There are a couple of moments where music is used to heighten the drama. Both of these are chillingly good. Anjana Vasan has a beautiful blues voice, when she sings in the casino. The slow motion sequence during the shooting, which I think used a Portishead track, has an ethereal, poetic quality that raises the production to a more abstract, surreal vision than we are used to seeing in a Tennessee Williams play, and this worked very well.

I enjoyed this production, it was brave enough to approach Tennessee Williams in a more lyrical manner than usual, the added musical dimension, although lightly used was very effective and it will endure in the memory for the amazing performance of Patsy Ferran in the leading role.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Once upon a there was a very talented author. His name was Martin McDonagh. Everybody loved his work and he wrote some wonderfully funny plays and some wonderfully clever scripts for films. However, Mr McDonagh had a terrible secret!

Do you remember Shakespeare’s infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters? Well, Martin had stolen the most talented of Shakespeare’s monkeys. He kept it chained to the typewriter and in reality, it was this monkey, who ghost wrote all of his stuff. It was really the most clever monkey, that had the brightest and funniest ideas, and all that Martin McDonagh had to do was to make sure that he edited them carefully.

Well, one day Mr Shakespeare realised that one of his monkeys was missing. He wasn’t sure which one, because he did have an awful lot of them, but he counted them up and, sure enough, he had infinity minus one! Impossible? Impossible but true! He could not let this happen so he determined to spend eternity looking for his monkey, and sure enough, after 300 years, he found that the missing monkey was living in the office of Martin McDonagh’s house.

Shakespeare decided that he would expose Mr McDonagh’s secret by putting a spell on him, which would impair his editing abilities. This would allow, just one time, the monkey’s writing to be issued straight to the world exactly as it was written, with no oversight at all. Shakespeare turned out to be a very clever magician, the spell worked perfectly and Hey Presto! in 2018 “A Very, Very, Very, Dark Matter” was issued upon the world!

As it happens, this show is not all bad. Granted, you will leave the theatre thinking, “What have I just witnessed?”, but the show is full to the brim with ideas. Some of these are funny and clever, some of them less so. It is a touch of genius using the voice of Tom Waits as narrator, his resonant, off beat tone suits the storyline perfectly.

Phil Daniels is wonderful as a foul mouthed Charles Dickens, but it is shocking to hear his young children using the same words, an interesting juxtaposition, I suppose.  Jim Broadbent plays Hans Christian Anderson as an amiable buffoon with deep psychological scars and sadistic overtones. This would be an impossible task for a less talented actor.

Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles makes her debut here in a starring role as Marjory. This is the most troubling part in the play and she carries it off very well, you would never know that it is her first major role. Martin McDonagh is always able to attract the highest quality actors and the depth of talent throughout the cast is the strength of the show.

This play has so much going on that it is impossible to make sense of it all. At points, it seems like a random jumble of weird toys thrown together by a wayward child. It has  many different ideas running around, some of which will make you uncomfortable, but one thing you can say about Martin McDonagh is that he never plays it safe. This is probably not going to be the most coherent show you will see this year, but I can guarantee that you will not be bored.

Macbeth, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC1

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2018 is turning out to be a Macbeth fest, with 4 major productions in London at various times through the year. Spring brought a Punk style, post apocalyptic version to the National Theatre. Autumn had The National Youth Theatre’s stylish and stylized, gender fluid adaptation. Shakespeare’s Globe has a Macbeth opening just now which will run to 2019, and this, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation, has been playing in Stratford through the year and will be at the Barbican until January.

Here we have a large cast, big names and high production values. The Barbican has a huge stage which is kept fairly minimal throughout, a digital clock, ticking down the seconds, dominates the set – reminding us of the passing of time. The witches are a stroke of genius, three schoolgirls dressed identically in red dresses and shoes with white wool tights, advancing together across the set and speaking in unison. Slightly reminiscent of the film “Don’t Look Now” but certainly the eeriest Macbeth witches I have ever seen.

This is a Macbeth that emphasises the psychological horror of the story. It is a brutal and murderous play, but priority is given to the effects of the violence rather than the violence itself. Polly Findlay, as director has made a clever and thoughtful direction decision in doing this, because we get to see more deeply into the characters of Macbeth and his wife, without losing any of the malignancy of the tale.

Niamh Cusack proves herself to be one of the finest actors, as Lady Macbeth. She is the instigator of the action, she drives and encourages her husband in his moments of doubt. We are always aware that her ambition is not hers alone, it is for them both together – and when she realises that his ambition has gone past hers, that she cannot stop him and that she has lost him, her descent into despair is palpable.

Christopher Ecclestone is Macbeth, he plays him as a modern day fighter, comfortable in battle fatigues, yet ambitious enough to don a dinner suit to schmooze at parties. His acting is a tour de force, we see him grow in ambition as the play moves on. The first undefended murder hits him hard, but each death gets easier and less affecting, until near the end they all just chalk marks on a blackboard, made by the watching porter.

This is a cold and dark Macbeth, perfect for a winter night, one that will stay with you as you sip your whiskey in the pub on the way home from the theatre. A great production of a chilling play. My favourite Macbeth.