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.

 

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Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

Macbeth

This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.

Circolombia, Underbelly Festival, Southbank, London

 

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This photo is courtesy of @tcspr.

 

Let’s start with the Underbelly Festival itself. Over the past 10 years this has become a symbol of summer on the Southbank. Each year it seems to get bigger and last longer. It started as an event around a giant inflatable purple cow in a coach park on Belvedere Road and used to be called Udderbelly. Now the cow appears to have gone (surely I didn’t miss it?!) but it has two covered performance spaces, at least four bars, street food stalls, plenty of outdoor seating and it lasts half the year – from early April until late September.

The shows consist of comedy, circus, music and cabaret, usually with a couple of silent discos thrown in through the season. The content varies from full on family entertainment to risqué burlesque. The tickets are generally pretty cheap for central London although many of the shows get booked up very quickly. You can just go in to use the bars and seating for free though, so its a nice place to meet friends even if you are not seeing a show – think Box Park without the claustrophobia of the box!

Circolombia are a  fourteen strong circus/dance/music troupe from Colombia and the show they present is part concert, part circus. They sing, they dance, they rap and they display awesome tumbling skills and wonderful aerial work. It all works very well together and you can see why they have built a big international reputation from their global tours. The music enhances the atmosphere for the circus work and you can feel the tension rise when the place quietens for a particularly daring routine.

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The routines are jaw dropping. The tumbling skills are immense, from rolling under and over a see-saw as it rocks, to throwing a performer onto the shoulders of another person who is already balanced on the shoulders of a third. There is one where one performer does acrobatics inside a circular frame, while that frame is balanced on the forehead of a man below.

The aerial feats are equally amazing, varying from solo high rope tumbling to double acrobatics with both people suspended by just a rope around the neck of one of them. At one point a performer is lifted high into the air by a ribbon held in his teeth, the person lifting him is suspended by her legs and carrying that ribbon by her teeth. One cannot help but be moved by both their strength and their trust.

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The show is short, at only an hour long, and the quality is of the highest order, there is no filler here, there were audible gasps from the audience throughout the show. I hope the acts are not actually as risky as they make them appear, because there is a sense of jeopardy, watching them in such a small space, you are aware that these are real people, taking real risks and this adds to the intensity of the performance.

Circolombia at the Underbelly Festival is a fantastic, exciting evening out and they have a number of dates here before moving on to the Edinburgh Festival in August. If you are unable to catch them here – or there, I urge you to look out for them, in case they come to a venue near you.

The Best Man by Gore Vidal, Playhouse Theatre, London WC2, 2018

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First produced on Broadway in 1960, The Best Man points at the flaws in the democratic system that we had then and that we still have today, namely that those who crave political power are the last people who should be given it. It is really interesting to note how it manages to be a period costume drama and a commentary on the machinations of political life today. The period part comes in the fact that political drama in the early 1960s was a much more static affair than we are used to now. Since “The West Wing” and “House of Cards”, rarely do we see anyone actually sitting and talking political ideas.

Gore Vidal is a fantastic writer, and even almost 60 years on, “The Best Man” is full of provocative ideas and stinging backhanded compliments.  It is insightful and witty and has a stellar cast. Martin Shaw shows great balance being righteous without being too pompous, he carries himself as though he believes he is better than the people who he hopes to vote for him, but has to work hard to avoid showing it.  Jeff Fahey is the Machiavellian, but he makes you understand that he realises this, and it is ok because he is doing it for the right reasons. Jack Shepherd almost steals the show as the outgoing President – this is a fantastic part, he gets to deliver some nice home truths to both sides and he plays it perfectly.

This being the early 1960s one would expect the women to be ancillary to the action, but Vidal was ahead of his time here, and the three leading ladies all have relatively meaty roles, and are aware of their importance in the political machine. Glynis Barber and Honeysuckle Weeks have very different roles as the respective senators wives but both are very convincing in what they do. Maureen Lipman is hilarious in a beautifully written cameo as Mrs Gamadge, who promises to bring “the women’s vote” to the candidate of her choice. She plays it so well and so much as we know her that it feels as though it could have been written for her.

Simon Evans has done a good job as director by ensuring that, although the play was written with one senator being the more honourable and the other being more murky, we see the faults in both. Apparently there was film of this play made in 1964, I will certainly be on the lookout for it because it will be interesting to see the difference 54 years has made in our perception of its ideas.

Unfortunately, I have come to this show late and it is about to close in London, but if it goes on tour after, I urge you to try and catch it, especially if you have any interest in politics – either American or British, and either current of historical. Recommended.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Palace Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1

Harry Potter

I guess that I had better begin by explaining where I am on the Hogwarts spectrum. I enjoy the Harry Potter franchise. I read the first three books and really liked them. I have watched all the films, including the fantastic beasts one, although I couldn’t say exactly what happened in which film, especially the ones towards the end of the series. So, I know all the main characters pretty well, but I’m not a person you would invite to be on your team in the Harry Potter trivia quiz.

This play is written by Jack Thorne, although it is based on a story by him, JK Rowling and John Tiffany. However, it does really feel like it is written by JK Rowling because it is, first and foremost, a really good story and she does know how to construct a good story. I’m not too sure why it is separated into two plays, because it is a single adventure and I suspect that if you were to just see part two, you wouldn’t have a clue what was going on at the beginning.  So, if you are planning to book, do see both parts and do see them in the correct order. Never have I been to the theatre and been warned so often about revealing the plot; luckily, I prefer leaving the storytelling to the playwright so rarely reveal plot twists in a review.

The story is great, not particularly complicated or cutting edge, but it is told in convincing detail over the course of five and a half hours. We know most of the main characters already, having lived through their adolescence, and I have to say it is interesting to see them all fully grown up with children of their own. The actors playing these parts have a tough job, taking over characters with whom we are already very familiar, but needing to bring their own ethos to the role. They all cope admirably with this challenge, Rakie Ayola and Jamie Glover are good as Hermione and Harry. I loved the reimagining of Ron Weasley; Thomas Aldridge’s character probably did have a little more of a free rein for development given his incidental part in the story, but it is very funny and he delivers it well. The new people are really the stars in this show, Theo Ancient is very good as Albus Severus Potter and Samuel Blenkin is fantastic as Scorpius Malfoy. April Hughes has a wonderful, scene stealing cameo as Moaning Myrtle.

The magic and special effects are spectacular, it is one thing seeing them on film as we are used to, but seeing them around you in the theatre really adds to the excitement. The effects are constant throughout the show and they are all top notch. The sets are clever and engaging, there is always something new to attract your attention, not an easy achievement over the course of such a long play. The choreography felt clunky at first, with too many flourishes, but you come to realise that this is necessary to help the magic along, and by the end I was full of admiration for the choreographer – with a company of 43 people, military precision must have been crucial.

These were the most expensive tickets I have ever bought, so it needed to be good, but I have to say that even so, I still feel that they were good value for money.

 

 

 

Chess, The Coliseum, London WC2

Chess

Chess at the Coliseum is part opera, part rock concert, but full on spectacle. It has a large orchestra, positioned in full view, above the stage. It has fire eaters, stilt walkers, aerial silk dancing, a company of fifty people. There are video screens, pop concert style, at each side of the stage; showing the current singer in close up. There are video clips showing American capitalist advertising and Russian communist iconography. They have lavished both money and attention on this show and it has not gone to waste. Sometimes, it is good to see a big production and the extravaganza that can be delivered when no expense is spared.  The music and performances need to be strong to cope with these distractions, and luckily here that is the case. When Chess was written, it was set in the near present, however the world has changed so much sine the 1980s that now it has become historical period drama, and this has given it has a timeless quality that it did not have at that time.

Music by Benny and Bjorn from Abba and lyrics by Tim Rice, the songs are memorable and emotional. It is clever that the American characters have the more rock style songs. Tim Howar has the perfect voice for these songs, unsurprising I suppose, as his day job is lead singer with Mike and the Mechanics – a classic ’80s rock outfit. Alexandra Burke is Svetlana, the Russian wife, not many songs but she sings them very well. Cassidy Jansen plays Florence, which is the bigger part and she also has an amazing voice. Their duet “I Know Him So Well” is beautiful. Michael Ball is Anatoly, the lead character and is just as good as you would expect him to be. All four main singers are artists at the peak of their careers and they bring out the full potential of the songs. Phillip Browne and Cedric Neal, as Molokov and The Arbiter respectively, also have lovely rich voices.

The choreography is clever and witty. I particularly liked the British dance, with the suited, bowler hatted, umbrella wielding civil servants doing their homage to the swans in swan lake, while the typing pool work away in the background. There is so much going on, all the time, in this production that, no doubt, there are elements that I missed, however, rarely has two and three quarter hours flown by so quickly. The Coliseum is a venue that is more used for traditional opera than modern musicals and Chess fitted in very well. Seeing it here, and hearing it with the benefit of the ENO chorus, one realises that this is a show that could be performed in a venue such as this for centuries to come.

Nightfall, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

Nightfall

Nightfall is a play by Barney Norris, who has already written many plays and books, winning the Critic’s Circle Award for most promising playwright along the way. From this production, you can see that he has a talent for writing dialogue. It has a realistic feel and there are some lovely moments of insight. However, this is a four hander and all of the characters don’t feel fully developed. The two women in particular are caricatures who, despite the difficulties they battle through, one does not feel much empathy for. The storyline has many twists, some very dramatic, but I felt that we were told about them, then they were forgotten about and had little effect on the characters’ actions.

Having said that, there are positives, the set is amazing and uses the modern stage to its best effect. The Bridge Theatre is a new theatre, less than a year old, and it is beautiful. Bigger than I expected, although it holds almost 1000 people, the design is such that I cannot imaging that there is single restricted view seat in the whole auditorium. The stage area itself is very versatile, it would not have been possible to have a set of this design in a more traditional theatre. I loved the lighting too, it is set outdoors and sunsets and sunrises are done beautifully. Cars arriving and leaving at night were also lit very cleverly.

Ukweli Roach puts in a great performance as Pete. Sion Daniel Young is also good as Ryan and there was an undercurrent of chemistry between the two characters that felt undeveloped. It is interesting to see that one of Barney Norris’ non fiction books is about the theatre of Peter Gill, because there were times when I was reminded of The York Realist.

Overall, although I enjoyed listening to them talk for the two hours, I did not feel that there was any narrative arc or that any of the characters had moved on over the course of the play. Perhaps  the type of nostalgia he was trying to evoke would have been easier to attain if it had not been set in the present, or perhaps it is one of those plays whose real depth will not be apparent until some years after writing.