“Cruel Intentions” at The Other Palace Theatre

The market for this new musical is clear enough – it’s an adaptation of a popular film from the 90s with pop songs from the same era that should secure an audience. You might like the movie and the hits. But Jordan Ross, Lindsey Rosin, and Roger Kumble’s efforts at bringing both to the stage are messy and unsatisfying. The combination of story and song isn’t inspired and the whole show comes across dated.

At least the story is OK, after all, it’s based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons. The action is moved to a wealthy school. Emotions and motives are simplified but the book is clear and replacing French aristocrats with wealthy American teenagers is an interesting idea. If it suffers from the characters all being the same age, and focusing on sex rather than power, the change provides insight.

The show is well performed. The leads, now wicked stepsiblings, have strong voices and are convincingly sexy. Daniel Bravo has the required charisma as Sebastian Valmont and sounds great. Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky, who takes the part of the villainous Kathryn Merteuil, is phenomenal. She has a voice that can make anything sound good (a talent she employs frequently here). Their victims can also sing but their roles are less successful; the parts for Abbie Budden and Rose Galbraith are either saintly or stupid and neither is particularly interesting. At least director Jonathan O’Boyle keeps everything clear and swift.

Problems arise with the songs. It’s not just a matter of taste or the issue of forcing songs into a musical that were never intended to be there (this can be done well, look at &Juliet). The trouble is that the mix seems random. Styles often jar…but pointlessly so. With a couple of exceptions, songs are thrown into the action with little thought. Even if you enjoy the performances, it’s hard to get past questioning – why this number? Compounding the problem, the orchestration is, mostly, unimaginative.

Yet it isn’t the music that really dates the show. Dangerous Liaisons should shock. Credit where it is due, these characters really are awful (and foul mouthed). The action isn’t coy. But any challenge or drama is dampened by injecting humour. Mixing Choderlos de Laclos with pop songs is, undoubtedly, camp. But camp should be clever. There’s a complicity with laughing along here that is thoughtless. Maybe it goes back to changing everyone’s age? Again, it isn’t a question of the talent on stage: Josh Barnett and Jess Buckby both have nice cameos that show their comic skills. It just seems odd to laugh at teens exploiting one another. In case that is a judgement based on taste, if you do want a comedy, the jokes still need to be better. Random profanities and unimaginative innuendo shouldn’t cut it nowadays. Ultimately, we know what’s going on here isn’t funny – as the end proves – so the show concludes on a downer and the jokes feel pointlessly tasteless.

Until 14 April 2024

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

Photo by Pamela Raith

“Kim’s Convenience” at the Park Theatre

It’s a little odd to see a play, with clear potential, that has already gone on to bigger things – it feels like the wrong way around! It’s easy to see why Ins Choi’s script has been developed as a TV show; the scenario is fruitful and the comedy excellent. If it isn’t quite as strong a show on stage, the evening is fun and the play highly entertaining.

The scenario is key: our titular hero is from Korea, his shop is in Canada and his children have been raised there – cue cultural and linguistic differences that mean the jokes can run and run. There aren’t a lot of surprises, but everything is handled neatly, and Esther Jun’s direction is, also, tidy. Quality is assured by interesting characters, sensitive issues, and strong performances.

Both Mr Kim and his estranged son, Jung, are strong characters. The elder endears but is also a little scary, he doesn’t mind being unreasonable. Understandably, Choi gives an assured performance of his own writing and is a pleasure to watch. Jung has been in trouble with the law and is now struggling as a new father. The role engenders the piece’s quieter moments and is performed with commendable calm by Brian Law. Is a reconciliation between the two possible? Of course. But it’s still sweet.

Mr Kim’s daughter, Janet, doesn’t fare as well with a disappointing, underwritten, role. But, there’s still a strong performance from Jennifer Kim. And Janet has a nice love story that provides a good part for Miles Mitchell (who also impresses as various shoppers at the store). Janet is very much the foil for her dad’s jokes – they are good jokes – but the character is sometimes only there to get them off the ground. The problem is even bigger for Mrs Kim (a role Namju Go seems wasted in) who gets to do very little indeed.

The action moves along nicely, the jokes arrive at a satisfying pace. The play is short (90 mins without an interval) but perfectly formed. From the Canadians in the crowd, it seems designer Mona Camille (and, presumably, prop supervisor Shupin Liu) deserves special praise for sourcing so many goodies for the shelves. The shop itself looks good. What’s on offer is worth buying. Even if, when it comes to the play itself, there isn’t that much in store.

Until 10 February 2024

www.parktheatre.co.uk

“Don’t Destroy Me” at the Arcola Theatre

A quality production adds interest to this play by Michael Hastings, despite its flaws. Written in 1956, Don’t Destroy Me is a family drama and coming-of-age story that reveals a society undergoing change. There’s plenty going on but, unfortunately, what really ends up fascinating is the young playwright’s struggles with his script.

While it is worthwhile to see kitchen-sink concerns via a working-class Jewish family the perspective isn’t elaborated on very much. And while there are interesting characters – that are well performed – it isn’t clear whose story this really is. The script lacks focus, and even strong direction from Tricia Thorns cannot add this.

There is no doubt you’ll enjoy the performance from Paul Rider as the patriarch with problems, Leo. Symbolic of his generation, he is “busted up by war”. But neither his story of immigration, his loss of faith, nor his self-medication with alcohol, are explored enough. Leo is in a loveless marriage with Shani, whose affair with her neighbour George (made superbly sinister by Timothy O’Hara) is an oddly open secret. Rider gives an emotive performance but it’s hard to feel for Leo. I wonder if Hastings disliked his creation?

Into this unhappy family arrives Leo’s son, Sammy, who has been living with his aunt. Is this our hero? The role marks a professional debut for Eddie Boyce who can be proud of their performance. But the character puzzles. We know teenagers can be tempestuous. But Sammy’s rebellion arrives too swiftly. And his loss of religion, seemingly at the moment a Rabbi he requested to meet arrives, is baffling. A lot rests on Sammy’s shoulders, and Boyce does well. But the writing isn’t strong enough. Maybe, here, Hastings was too close to his character?

Sammy isn’t the only odd one in the house. Upstairs are a mother and daughter through whom Hastings highlights mental health. Again, there’s strong work from the cast. Nell Williams plays the young Suki and makes her endearing. Alix Dunmore takes the part of her mother and works hard, carefully dropping the character’s posh voice when under stress. But the serious problems both have are handled frostily. There’s even the suggestion they’re faking. Articulacy battles with how serious these delusions are. Then Suki inexplicably transforms into a voice of wisdom for Sammy, which left me scratching my head. Both women are exaggerated so that they appear eccentric rather than troubled. Their lyrical dialogue is so laboured they become tiresome.

Considering what’s going on in this boarding house, Don’t Destroy Me should devastate any residual nostalgia for 1950s. The work might well have been shocking when it was written. But how much credit should Hastings get for that, now? The play fits neatly into a history of post-war theatre and is interesting for a social historian but is dramatically unwieldly and unrewarding. I’m grateful to have seen it, and everyone involved has done a good job. But I can’t recommend it to others.

Until 3 February 2024

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo by Phil Gammon

“The Good John Proctor” at the Jermyn Street Theatre

Part of the Footprints Festival, curated to showcase new talent, Talene Monahon’s play is inspired by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. With events set before the Salem witch trials, it is a prequel, of sorts, but might be best thought of as a dialogue with Miller’s classic. And a clever conversation it is too. I’m not sure The Good John Proctor stands on its own – you do need to know about its context. But it comes close and deserves praise.

There are only four characters here – Abigail, Betty, Mary and Mercy. They are performed by Anna Fordham, Sabrina Wu, Lydia Larson, and Amber Sylvia Edwards respectively. Each performer succeeds in making the roles their own. Being younger (then, in a final epilogue scene, older) they are not quite Miller’s creations. The key move on Monahon’s part is to focus on the girls’ youth.

The action unfolds before the characters come to be used by the wider community for profit or vengeance. Monahon benefits from her focus. We see ideas about sin and the supernatural impacting these young lives. And how anxieties about growing up, physically and emotionally, take their toll. There is more – to increasingly powerful effect- as it becomes clear how the girls suffer under the men in charge of them. There are whippings and servitude to consider. The titular hero of Miller’s work becomes a sinister figure. It all gives rise to an atmospheric production, complete with spooks and whoops, thanks to director Anna Ryder’s strict handling of the swift, sharp scenes and some bold design from Laura Howard and Bella Kear.

There’s an interesting decision about language. Rather than getting bogged down in seventeenth century America, there are touches of the modern high school behind how the girls speak. Hearing “what’s up kids” jars – but it is effective. The technique might be more consistent (maybe more extreme?). But the only problem is that it takes a while to appreciate that it works.

Using speech outside the historical period is important when considering another part of Monahon’s project – examining the girls’ reputation in history, including the legacy of Miller’s play. An intriguing address from Mary, who describes herself as an “ancient child”, with the house lights raised, needs elaboration but is thrilling. Far from being in awe of its source, Monahon has challenges for Miller’s play. Part of this conversation is an interrogation – one that is delivered smartly and with dramatic effect.

Until 27 January 2024

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Photos by Jack Sain

“Exhibitionists” at the King’s Head Theatre

A new year and a new theatre! The new home for this stellar fringe venue, pretty much behind the pub it takes its name from, is a great start to 2024. And it is commendable that the inaugural production is a new play, written by Shaun McKenna and Andrew Van Sickle. The piece can be generously described as safe – a romantic comedy (of sorts) with an eye on the LGBTQ audience that the King’s Head Theatre admirably serves.

The aim is light entertainment, the inspiration (we’re told) screwball comedies from the 1930s and 40s. There are touches of Alan Ayckbourn too, but the play might best be thought of as an openly gay version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. These are solid sources and the idea of updating them isn’t bad. Maybe it shouldn’t surprise that the play doesn’t live up to them… it’s a big ask after all.

Ex-lovers, Conor and Robbie, who meet again at an art exhibition, had long experimented with an open relationship. They run off together, leaving their new, younger, boyfriends Mal and Rayyan bereft, before a predictable and improbable ending. The problem isn’t that we can guess what happens next – it’s that the dialogue doesn’t sparkle. There’s little wit and the jokes are lacking.

It’s interesting that the younger characters are better written. Or maybe they are just more interesting? At least, it’s a neat point that they behave less like children than the older men. But it’s a shame some less savoury points from McKenna and Van Sickle’s old-fashioned inspiration have been retained – Conor and Robbie’s attitude to waiting staff and the domestic violence in the play do not sit well with trying to make people laugh nowadays. To be fair, there are some attempts at satire that are topical. An unhappy role for a Norwegian hotelier (performed valiantly by Øystein Lode) and new age therapy (using a spoon!) should be easy targets. And Instagram of course. But there isn’t enough originality here and the jokes continue to be poor.

While the play itself leaves a lot of be desired, praise is deserved when it comes to the production. The five cast members all have a tough job but each manage to make their lines light, even when the jokes don’t land. Ashley D Gayle and Robert Rees convince as a couple who have known each other a long time, even if it is hard to care about their characters. Rolando Montecalvo and Jake Mitchell-Jones both have a clear idea of what the piece is trying to do, even if the material limits them. Credit to director Bronagh Lagan who keeps the action tight, touches of farce are handled particularly well, and ensures the show at least has the energy that the script lacks.

Until 10 February 2024

www.kingsheadtheatre.com

Photo by Geraint Lewis

“The Motive and the Cue” at the Noël Coward Theatre

This blog is about loving theatre. So, Jack Thorne’s play, which goes behind the scenes of Richard Burton and John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet, is a welcome transfer from the National Theatre. With Sam Mendes directing, it’s sure to thrill theatregoers. It really is a great show.

There’s a trick that’s neat, if not uncommon. Like lots of writers who use Shakespeare’s quotes, the play’s the thing that tells us about the creative process and the people who are performing. The idea structures the play (each scene comes with a quote) and provides a quest – Burton must find “his” Hamlet.

While there’s debate about tradition and youth, with Burton and Gielgud representing different ages, there’s a struggle with the thrill of seeing the two greats depicted. Both are vulnerable – Gielgud’s career is in the dumps and Burton’s drinking on the rise – but we never question their genius. And the fact they are at odds adds a lot of humour. Almost every line is entertaining.

There are problems. I guess you wouldn’t see the play without knowing Hamlet… but that knowledge is essential. And not a passing acquaintance with the play, either. When Thorne does provide background, it rings hollow – there’s too much listing of achievements. It’s frustrating as a solution is present. Burton’s wife, Elizabeth Taylor, is the outsider who could help the audience. Possibly a desire not to patronise Taylor won out. But the character ends up underused. A great shame given Tuppence Middleton’s strong performance in the role.

Which leads to another question. This rehearsal room is full. The production boasts a strong cast that includes Allan Corduner and Sarah Woodward in great form. We all know theatre is a collective effort. But the play is overwhelmed by its central duo. Mirroring Burton’s dilemma – ego takes over. Despite Gielgud’s effort as his director, we don’t see him learning much from anyone. You might argue this is a play about how theatre works… that doesn’t show us how theatre works.

Mark-Gatiss-and-Johnny-Flynn-in-The-Motive-and-the-Cue-credit-Mark-Douet
Mark-Gatiss and Johnny Flynn

It’s hard to know how much such quibbles matter. Mendes brings great style to the show, with the help of designer Es Devlin and lighting from Jon Clark. As well as wringing out big emotion – both Burton and Gielgud’s demons get an airing – the comedy is perfect. And while the lead performances share the danger of unbalancing the production, they are spectacular.

Johnny Flynn plays Burton with breath-taking charisma. It’s a harsh depiction, especially when he is drunk, but you’d still forgive the character almost anything. And you’re convinced his Hamlet was amazing. But since the show contains a battle of egos… Gielgud wins and Mark Gatiss, who takes the role, gives the performance of his career. The impersonation is remarkable – I swear Gatiss starts to look like the man. We see plenty of snobbery but come to understand it as a defence mechanism. Not only is he funnier, in Gatiss’ hands the older man becomes a figure of huge sympathy.

It is with the figure of Gielgud that the transitory nature of theatre, the important role its history plays, the creative struggle and bravery behind putting on a show all become clearer. So…Gielgud is doing a lot of work. And Mendes gets to remind us how important the director is! Burton finds his Hamlet. But nothing happens without Gielgud.

Until 24 March 2024

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Mark Douet

“Cold War” at the Almeida Theatre

All the tragic romance in Paweł Pawlikowski’s 1998 film is present in this adaptation from Conor McPherson, directed by Rupert Goold. The story of two musicians, Wiktor and Zula, separated by the titular conflict when he defects to France, is intense; from passion filled first meeting, to damaging co-dependency, and a depressing finale.

Cold War is a play with music rather than a musical but there are a lot of songs. Under the musical direction of Jo Cichonska the show sounds great. First there are folk songs: Wiktor is collecting them with his lover Irene (a superb performance from Alex Young) when he meets Zula. The traditional music is re-arranged throughout the show to great effect. But we also get new compositions from Elvis Costello. It’s all interesting and subtle, complimenting and commenting on action rather than being the focus.

Elliot Levey, Alex Young and Luke Thallon
Elliot Levey, Alex Young and Luke Thallon

There’s more than the lovers to consider. Questions of art as propaganda and the role of nationalism follow our musicians, most notably in the form of Kaczmarek, a character Elliot Levy skilfully develops from party apparatchik to impresario. The big themes are thin at times, the politics cursory. But there’s plenty to think about and Goold powers through. Then there’s a lot of talk of freedom – how that relates to creativity. So, we’re very much in tortured artist territory. Wiktor and Zula want to do something new and become frustrated.

As trigger warnings state, the outcome for the couple is awful. There are efforts not to glamorise what happens. Wiktor and Zula make interesting anti-heroes that challenge how stylish the production is. Paule Constable’s excellent lighting design has seductive moments (such sexy spotlights) but also harsh clinical glares. Goold is too smart to make the show a straightforward tearjerker – credit to him – but it is odd programming for the festive season.

It’s with the lead performances, from Anya Chalotra and Luke Thallon, that the show really succeeds. Thallon conveys his character’s pain cleverly – Wiktor is a man who hides much. Chalotra is a revelation, full of humour and magnetism while showing a mania that the role requires. She has a sweet voice, and, even tougher, has to sing badly at times (oh, and they both do drunk very well). The couple have a marvellously natural way about them, and for a lot of the time you believe they have fun together. Neither passion nor antagonism are overplayed. Chalotra and Thallon make sure you never quite know what’s going to happen. They make the show exciting and provide a highlight in what might otherwise be just too grim.

Until 27 January 2024

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Rock ‘n’ Roll” at the Hampstead Theatre

This revival from director Nina Raine firmly establishes Tom Stoppard’s 2006 play as a modern classic. It’s a piece that has it all: history and politics, plenty of philosophy, and a surprising amount of romance. What you find most appealing is up to you, but big themes and complex personalities are juggled well, and the play is hugely rewarding.

Stoppard loves a big timespan, and there’s plenty of history here, from the Prague Spring of 1968 to a Rolling Stones concert at the city’s Strahov Stadium in 1990. The action tracks the politics of Cambridge based Max and his one-time student Jan, who returns to his native Czechoslovakia early in the play.

In other hands an audience could get lost, so Raine deserves praise here: the production is marvellously clear and bravely paced. It is hard not to be overwhelmed towards the end, and the final party scene chat feels rushed. But if it’s ideas you want to hear, you will be happy; Stoppard’s characters can talk about ideology and consciousness, of all kinds, better than most. Politics here is more than a matter of left and right. Instead, the concern is political engagement, to the extent of asking if not caring might be the best way to be a dissident.

Nathaniel-Parker-&-Jacob-Fortune-Lloyd-in-Rock-'n'-Roll-credit-Manuel-Harlan
Nathaniel Parker & Jacob Fortune-Lloyd

It is those who ask questions – the intellectuals – who are most vivid. Max’s die-hard Communism fascinates. Loyal to the party late in life, he is portrayed with skill by Nathaniel Parker. Jan offers a contrast: he wants a quieter life (spoiler – he doesn’t get one), finding his friends’ letters of protest pointless. Yet Jan is made heroic by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd’s sensitive portrayal.

The characters are keen to address a divide between theory and practice. Possibly, Stoppard’s answer, after outlining all that thinking, is focusing on people – through his characters. That’s my preference anyway. And Stoppard knows how important these personal stories are. His creations have rich emotional lives that form another level for the play. Like the soundtrack for the show, or the love poems by Sappho that feature, they interact with, ground if you like, the big ideas.

Nancy-Carroll-in-Rock-'n'-Roll-credit-Manuel-Harlan
Nancy Carroll

There is a lot of love in Rock ‘n’ Roll, from the mother and daughter relationship that leads to a great role for Phoebe Horn, to the affection between teacher and pupil that Max and Jan show. But it is the romance between Max and his wife, Eleanor, then a young love revisited in middle age for their daughter Esme, with Jan, that provide real warmth. Taking the roles of Elinor and Esme, who love Max and Jan in turn, is a big task but makes an amazing night for Nancy Carroll. These are the roles that provide passion for the play and end up inspiring.

Until 27 January 2024

www.hampsteadtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“My Neighbour Totoro” at the Barbican Theatre

This smash hit production, winner of six Olivier Awards last year, is back. It’s easy to appreciate why it’s packing them in as the staging is superb. Retaining the feel of its Japanese source material, the show is just that little bit different for London. And the atmosphere is great. Suitable for theatregoers from the age of six, hearing the audience’s delight is almost as much fun as what’s on stage.

An adaptation of the legendary Studio Ghibli’s animation, the story is very simple: two young sisters move to the country when their mother becomes ill (don’t worry – nothing that bad happens). In their new home, they meet a spirit of the woods who comes to comfort and help them… even if he is noisy and smells like mud.

While there are more sad moments that you might expect, the story impresses with its light touch – both the characters and the audience are enchanted by the titular creature. Mei Mac and Ami Okumura Jones give energetic performances as the girls and get a lot of laughs. And they can deliver when it comes to big emotions – having a toddler temper tantrum is a hard act to pull off!

Director Phelim McDermott brings it all the stage with fantastic style. The puppets, designed and directed by Basil Twist, are very big and look very cuddly. It’s possible you might be tempted to buy a toy version helpfully on sale at the theatre. The sets are also fantastic. As well as an appropriate paper-inspired aesthetic, the family home opens up and splits apart to great effect. The house itself can be considered part of the incredible movement direction for the show, credited to You-Ri Yamanaka. An impressive troupe makes the magic happen. Operating as stagehands as well as puppeteers, they are cast as spirits with touches of humour and they provide remarkable personality (considering they’re mostly dressed in black with their faces covered). They don’t compete with the props or puppetry – they complement them.

It’s the pace of the show that sets it apart. There are plenty of slower moments when we’re invited just to enjoy the spectacle. Time is allowed to appreciate Jessica Hung Han Yun and Tamykha Patterson’s gorgeous lighting design, while Nicole T Chang’s work (credited for sound effects and as soundscape designer) adds atmosphere. These almost contemplative moments might try the patience of adults more than children. This isn’t the first show I’ve seen where those being naughty were old enough to know better! But the ones that matter – the real fans – love it. It is great to hear them, and Tortoro, roar.

Until 23 March 2024

www.barbican.org.uk

“Infinite Life” at the National Theatre

Annie Baker’s new play might be the quietest you’ll ever see in a theatre… which has an appeal. Six characters sit around on sun-loungers talking. They come and go a little. They are silent a lot of the time. And they never raise their voices.

The women, and one man, are on a fasting retreat, with aims that vary from miracle cures to managing chronic pain. But nothing really happens. There’s an obsession with medical language that Baker makes magically poetic. Yet we learn surprisingly little about this taciturn lot.

Time is punctuated by announcements from Sofi, whose struggle and story is our focus. As she becomes weaker from not eating (suffering is part of the procedure, of course) there are surreal touches: some smart, some funny. But even oddity isn’t overplayed by Baker.

Credit to director James Macdonald, who tackles the piece with steely nerve – so much silence! Is it hard to handle… or even stay awake? And what to do as a performer? The cast is calm and in control. Christina Kirk has it comparatively easy as Sofi; we get to hear plenty of her troubles – and fantasies – through tortured late-night phone calls. The rest – Marylouise Burke, Mia Katigbak, Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley and Pete Simpson – all impress with close work. But the restraints imposed on them are the key. These are glimpses at lives. Baker’s dialogue is accomplished, but they characters aren’t close to each other and we aren’t allowed close to them either.

There’s a point to all the reserve. While Infinite Life is austere, the play is also philosophically rich. The question of other minds is brought into focus by it all and by discussions of pain. The extreme treatment volunteered for would please a Stoic, but it makes those undergoing it lose touch with reality. And don’t forget denial can be indulgent. Talk of souls becomes explicitly linked with religion, energy and flux. All this on an empty stomach.

It’s hard to fault the play’s originality – the production is intelligent and brave. But Infinite Life is hard work. Lots of plays tackle philosophy – and Baker is good at it – but you do have to be in the market for metaphysics to buy this one. I’m just glad I had an overpriced sandwich beforehand.

Until 13 January 2024

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner