Victoria’s Knickers, Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1.

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I love when the National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End season comes around. This year their shows are on at the Soho Theatre throughout November. Victoria’s Knickers is the second production of the season. Consensual began a week ago and you can still catch a performance of that if you are quick, I saw it last week and you can read what I thought of it here: Consensual.

One of the things I really enjoy about the National Youth Theatre shows is that you often have absolutely no idea what kind of thing you are going to see until the curtain goes up. This particular show is a historical romp set in the early nineteenth century delivered in modern language with musical interludes and current world references. It is, very loosely, based on a real historical incident when a teenage boy repeatedly broke into Buckingham Palace. He was feted by the papers at the time, he was interviewed by Charles Dickens and it was even reported that on one occasion he was caught with a pair of Victoria’s Knickers.

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The story is delivered in a musical madcap romcom style, with a touch of 18th century political drama. The genre of the play changes from minute to minute and the musical styles vary from hip-hop, through Disney to Ed Sheeran and Adele. The plot line is full of holes, the story is ridiculous, the set is practically non-existent and it all adds up to a fantastic evenings entertainment, that the audience loved.

This show could not work without brilliant writing and direction. Josh Azouz on this showing is a very talented writer with a sharp eye for inventive situational comedy.  There are some great individual one line jokes in the script too. When Victoria tells Ed that she loves Albert, he replies conversationally “Of course you do, he’s your cousin”. Director, Ned Bennett does a brilliant job in drawing attention to the preposterous, and finding the humour in the clashes of cultures between all the different genres of theatre on show in this production. The set consists of unadorned MDF at the back, what looks like brown paper at the sides, and dozens of old random cardboard boxes that arrive on stage for most of the second half of the play.

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Alice Vilanculo is amazing as the soon to be Queen Victoria with a very 21st century sensibility, she makes you care for her situation while still having you laugh at it. Jamie Ankrah is excellent as Ed, 19th Century pauper, dreamer…. teenage lover. Aiden Chang has a fantastic role as Sasha, a soldier/torturer disguised as a lady of the court, he attacks the part with gusto and steals almost every scene in which he appears. Oseloka Obi is great as the rapping prince Albert, the acting throughout the company is brilliant and the show is littered with great cameos.

Victoria’s Knickers is difficult to describe and there are so many levels on which it should not work. However it is funny, inventive, musically clever and likeable. This is another success for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain and for a writer and actors with big careers ahead of them.

Hogarth’s Progress Part 2, The Taste of the Town, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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Nick Dear’s second part of Hogarth’s Progress is set thirty years on from part 1 which is reviewed here: Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston. This second play is also a fictional story based around real events in the life of William Hogarth.  By this time he has enjoyed success, and he is serjeant painter to King George III. He has taken a house in the countryside, in Chiswick.

This story also takes place on a drunken day, although by now William Hogarth is something of a reformed character and one has the impression that days such as these are less frequent than in the past. Although the day itself is a fictional day, the characters in the play are real, and the people and events that they discuss are fact. Hogarth is worried that, although he is relatively rich and famous, his art is not given the gravitas it deserves. The play then, although it is a light comedy in style, has an underlying discussion about what exactly it is that constitutes success. It is a cleverly written piece and it works well on both levels.

The dialogue is crisp and funny. The characters have depth, we see their flaws and like them nevertheless. Mark Umbers is very good as David Garrick, the multi faced actor. He is smooth, accomplished and very aware that the whole world is a stage. The role of Horace Walpole is beautifully written and it is beautifully played Ian Hallard. His lines are witty, barbed, and perfectly delivered. He rips Hogarth to shreds so sweetly that the artist leaves his house almost believing that he has made a new best friend.

The acting throughout is superb. Sylvestra Le Touzel is wonderful as Lady Thornhill, arch and harsh, but knowing where her best interests lie. Jasmine Jones shines again, this time as Bridget. It is interesting to see the cast playing different parts in each play and I enjoyed the links between the two shows, although each is an independent narrative and works without any knowledge of the other.

Both of these shows are interesting and both are worth seeing. If you can only see one, the first is frenetic and explicit, the second is calmer and sharper but each one is funny in its own way, so it depends on how you like your comedy. If I had to choose, I think I would probably pick the second, simply for the wonderful characters Walpole and Garrick.

 

Hogarth’s Progress Part 1, The Art of Success, Rose Theatre, Kingston

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The Art of Success was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1986. it was written by Nick Dear, he has now written a companion piece, set 30 years later and they are being presented as a double bill at the Rose Theatre in Kingston, under the title “Hogarth’s Progress”. The first play depicts Hogarth’s life at the time just before the copyright act came into force when he had just done “A Harlot’s Progress” and before he started “A Rake’s Progress”. The second will depict him in later life. They are meant to complement each other and still work as stand alone plays.

Set in London in the 1730s, “The Art of Success” is a ribald and raucous story, telling of the partying antics of many of the renowned people of the day. These include Hogarth himself, the satirist Henry Fielding, Prime Minister Robert Walpole, brothel keeper Elizabeth Needham and even George II’s wife Queen Caroline. Many scenes are salacious and slanderous, reflecting the satirical plays of the time that led to the passing of the Theatrical Licensing Act. Hogarth was instrumental in causing the engraving copyright act to be passed and there is a subtext to this play about the ownership of art and about how art develops in times of social change, which chimes with the present day challenges for art in the different forms of social media.

Having said all that, the main thrust of the play is a bawdy farce about an epic night on the town and is meant to be enjoyed as just that. In this respect it works well.  It has funny jokes, although it occasionally veers into Carry-on territory. It is merciless in lampooning the aristocracy and it has enjoyable characters. The cast is spectacular, every performance is good.  Jasmine Jones is excellent as Sarah Sprackling, she manages to get a great balance between comedy and pathos. Jack Derges as Henry Fielding is both funny and loathsome. Bryan Dick does a fantastic job of holding it all together as runs about the town in various stages of disrepair.

The set is ingenious, I liked how contemporary it manged to be while still displaying the 18th Century. I cannot imagine that they had the ability to use the effects on display here when it was first produced 32 years ago, and I enjoyed the little nods to modern technology in the direction. “The Art of Success” is a play that you continue to appreciate after you have left the theatre and I am looking forward to seeing part 2 “The Taste of the Town” when it opens next week.

 

Allelujah!, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Alan Bennett has consistently been one of England’s best playwrights over the course of the past fifty years. His last couple of plays have been well written and funny, but were a little too cosy to be among my personal favourites of his work. Having said that, everything he writes is at least very good and nicely droll.

Allelujah! is set in the geriatric ward of a hospital that is at risk of closure, and for most of the first act we are lulled into a gentle musical comedy about the hardships and indignities of growing old. However, towards the end of the act, things take an unexpected and darker direction and we realise that, during the first third of the play, the scene was being set for a biting political satire. Alan Bennett is cross, and this irritation has led to some of his best writing in years.

This is a play about how poorly we treat the aged in our society and it examines the reasons why this is the case, while entertaining us with smart one liners and whimsical song and dance routines. Nicholas Hynter directs the play, he is a long time collaborator with Bennett and he complements him well. The cast is big and there are many good performances. I particularly liked Sacha Dhawan as Valentine, diffident at first, but bristling with restrained anger by the end. Samuel Barnett is good too, he has an unlikable character to play, yet he manages to have us understand his motivation.

The play has so many scene changes that it might have been written for television. The ingenious set design prevents us feeling that the stage is in a constant state of flux. Arlene Phillips is the choreographer and she has a fine line to tread between keeping the routines tight and having us remember that these people are too old and unwell to be released from hospital – she does a fine job.

The real star of the show is the writing. I love Alan Bennett’s balance, he always presents both sides of an argument. Even when he is presenting a personal point of view, I admire his fairness in giving the other side a voice. He does this particularly well here, he writes some characters with quite unsavoury personality traits in this play, yet they are unapologetic and we understand that they feel justified in their actions, even if we cannot condone them ourselves.

I hope that I haven’t made the play seem too dark and political, because it is a truly funny and entertaining show, made all the better by the fact that it makes you think about the way the old and infirm are treated in our society. I think this is possibly my favourite Alan Bennett play yet.

 

 

Imperium, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1.

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Imperium is an adaptation of Robert Harris’ three books on the life of Cicero, into six plays, each just over one hour long. These have been amalgamated into two plays; Conspirator and Dictator, which are running concurrently with the same cast at the Gielgud Theatre. It is possible, if you choose the correct day, to watch the first play as a matinee and the second one the same evening.

This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production which has transferred from Stratford to the West End. Robert Harris is an acclaimed author of historical novels, renowned for making history accessible. Mike Poulton who adapted these novels has recently brought Hilary Mantel’s,Tudor novels to the stage with great success. These three combine well to make a thoroughly entertaining and interesting biography of one of Rome’s less covered  characters.

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Cicero has been written as the hero here although not without flaws. He is honourable and steadfast to his belief in the Republic of Rome. He has great oratorical skills and is politically adept. He is also vain, aware of his talents, but blind to his faults. Richard McCabe plays the part admirably, with charisma – he is self important and gossipy, but witty and likeable still. The other main part in this play is Tiro, Cicero’s slave, who is writing his biography. Joseph Kloska is fantastic in this role, he is effectively the narrator of the story. He is integral to making Cicero likeable and his affection for his master, while seeing his faults, shines through his performance. Both of them are on stage for almost the entire seven hours of the show. The synergy between these two main characters is lovely and is the column around which the whole production is built.

Nearly everyone else is an antihero and a threat to the Roman Republic. Peter de Jersey is a smooth, smiling Julius Caesar – politically adept, desirous of power for personal gain. Joe Dixon is very good as Cataline, all brawn and little brain, who believes that he deserves to rule Rome and is prepared to bring it down in revenge, if it fails to deliver his wishes. In the second series of plays Oliver Johnstone is good as Octavian Caesar. He is cold, calculating and calm, able to bide his time as he is convinced of his own divinity.

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For me, the one misstep was portraying Pompey as a Donald Trump type figure. In historical terms it is likely that they were far from alike politically, and director Gregory Doran did a nice job of drawing our own comparisons with the present day throughout the rest of the show, without us needing any coercion, so maybe we should have been trusted to do the same here. However that is a small quibble, for a production that has managed to walk the line between accuracy and accessibility.

The set too is good, simple and effective. Senate steps that the cast sit upon while listening. Tesserae of watching eyes at the back of the stage. The walls of the senate are built with Roman bricks. There is a huge revolving, reflective, silver globe suspended over the set, that changes hue with events on stage – perhaps a pun on Urbis et Orbis from the city to the world. Anthony Ward has done well making the audience the forum, to whom the senate are speaking and drawing us in to the action.

Imperium is a lovely reproduction of a small part of ancient history. it is witty, funny and accessible, an enjoyable show whether or not you have an interest in the Roman Republic. Robert Harris famously said of his Cicero trilogy that is “The West Wing with Togas”, well this contemporary adaptation turns it into “House of Cards in Ancient Rome”. Surely a Netflix production cannot be far away – and if it is I will surely be watching!

 

 

 

A Very English Scandal, Television Series, BBC

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A Very English Scandal is a 3 part series, a fictionalised retelling of a political scandal that took place in the UK in the 1970s. Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberals for part of that time and he was a very well known politician throughout the late 1960s and the 1970s. He is alleged to have had an affair with a man named Norman Scott, this affair ended badly and Norman Scott threatened to tell all; to the police, the papers and Jeremy’s mother. When he began carrying out these threats, beginning with a detailed and graphic letter to the mother, Jeremy Thorpe is supposed to have hired a hitman to kill Scott. The hitman was incompetent, shot Scott’s dog instead and it all ended up in a well documented court case.

Lets just say that if you were to try and make up a salacious story to sell newspapers to the British public in the 1970s, you could hardly invent a story better than this. It had everything, its biggest difficulty would be convincing the readers that it was actually true. The court found them all not guilty, however from speaking to people who lived through the newspaper coverage, the accusations were believed by the general public and the feeling was that they were acquitted because of some biased summing up by the judge and the protection of “an old boys network” which was prevalent in political circles at the time.

Nevertheless, they were acquitted and this series is fiction because it assumes that they were all guilty as charged. It has Thorpe and Bissell plotting to kill Scott, something that Thorpe denied until his death, although Bissell gave evidence to the contrary.  Stephen Frears directed this, with great attention to detail, even without the story this is a beautiful period drama, the 1960s and 1970 are lovingly recreated in the clothes, the decoration, the speech, the attitudes. Russell T. Davies wrote the piece and he adds humour and wit to the dialogue, he peoples the back story with the eccentrics of the time, but basically sticks to the story as it was covered when it broke.  The narrative itself really didn’t need any embellishment, it was more a question of keeping it from being too outrageous.

Hugh Grant plays Jeremy Thorpe, he is absolutely believable in the role of a suave, charismatic politician, with a defective moral compass, prepared to do anything to cling on to power.  Ben Whishaw as Norman Scott, is a tougher sell, part naïve ingenue, part worldly manipulator. He is alternately the hurt boy led astray and the vindictive gold digger who knows how much his silence is worth, this is a thin line to walk – but in the end, he carries it off well. There are some great performances throughout the series, Patricia Hodge is wonderful as Ursula Thorpe, Jeremy’s indomitable mother.

There are some lovely, funny cameo roles as British eccentrics, David Bamber has a role as the 8th Earl of Bamber, with badgers running around his country house. He does appear to be as eccentric as his role suggests – he introduced both the homosexual reform bill in the House of Lords and a bill for the protection of Badgers. When asked why he thought that the first passed and the second failed, he is reported to have said, “Well, there aren’t any Badgers in the House of Lords”

Overall this is a admirable treatment of an incredible story, I was aware of the people involved in the story before watching, without any great knowledge of the detail. It gives insight into the political and social attitudes of the time, for example, it was more damaging to a political career to be accused of homosexuality than to be accused of murder. It is well written, entertaining and funny, with some great acting. It is on BBC I-player now and likely to distributed around the world in the near future. If you have any interest in politics, the 1960s and ’70s, attitudes to LGBT rights, Britain and British eccentrics, I think that you will enjoy this. Actually, even if you have no interest in any of those things, I think that this series is funny enough to entertain you.

Phobiarama, LIFT 2018, West Handyside Canopy, Kings Cross, London.

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LIFT 2018 is a festival of international performance, running at various venues around London from late May until early July. There is a wide choice of shows available and a huge variety of styles on show. There is a children’s show by renowned theatrical company Punchdrunk, where adults will not be granted admittance unless accompanied by a child. There is a South Korean Opera about the Trojan wars in Greece and there is even a piece of performance art that involves 1500 pigeons, with LED lit leg-rings, flying above the Thames.

Phobiarama is billed as an immersive theatre experience. This is certainly true, and I don’t wish to give too much away, as being unaware of what is about to happen adds to the thrill of the show. I would best describe it as a 21st century ghost ride with real actors, strobe lights and political overtones. Dries Verhoeven is a visual artist who has updated a 20th Century fairground ride into a paranoid, threatening 21st Century journey through political and popular culture. This show travels the world but each one is site specific, and this one has elements that apply particularly to London. I can say that it gives a feeling of drifting through a waking nightmare and I was reminded of film warnings that say “This show contains some scenes of mild horror”.

You are disorientated from entering the space in pitch blackness and the anxiety gradually racks up throughout the 45 minute performance, as shadows in the background slowly become more real, with television newsreels reminding you of events that have happened in London over the past years. I guess that some people do not like to feel frightened, however lightly, so this show will not be for everyone, but I enjoyed the feelings of mild paranoia that I was given and I found it interesting to think about why some of the scenes made me feel uncomfortable.

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The opportunity to experience running away backwards from an evil clown, while Nigel Farage rants on about the iniquity of our immigration system, is one that does not occur regularly – and although this was a memorable part of the show, it was by no means the most disquieting, so if you think that this is something you might enjoy, you need to take the chance now, while it is here.

I would suggest that you should not go if you find strobe lighting a risk or if you suffer from coulrophobia. I have to say that I thought that this was a really interesting experience.  I hope that Dries Verhoeven brings other events to London and if he does, I fully intend to visit them.