Tag Archives: Jon Bausor

"True West" at the Vaudeville Theatre

Director Matthew Dunster makes commendably light work of Sam Shepard’s heavy play. With a couple of star names attached – Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn – the production is enjoyable and entertaining.

Dunster and his cast, who play two bickering brothers, have a keen appreciation of Shepard’s humour. Even as their antics flip from the sinister to the increasingly desperate, elements of the absurd are emphasised. While the siblings’ estrangement has a longer history than Harington or Flynn manage to suggest and the tension throughout could be sharper (Flynn is never quite as physically threatening as the text suggests), these are detailed studies and the performances are worth the price of admission. Harington is unrecognisable as the geeky Austin, a semi-successful screen writer. His rivalry with Lee, who Flynn makes a charismatic rogue, is subtly played. As the movie Austin thought he had lined up is canned, in preference to a feeble pitch that part-time crook Lee thought up and promoted through a combination of gambling and “beginner’s luck”, the professional setback leads to a breakdown that Harington makes very convincing.

Austin’s occupation – and, through it, Shepard’s exploration of writing – proves tiresome. The illusions crafted in movies (not films, please note) are all a part of exploring that old American Dream. Admittedly Shepard does this in detail. The sense of time and place is wonderful – credit to Jon Bausor’s set and costume design here, too – but this is a small spin on an old topic. And credit, also, to raising the problems associated with masculinity at a time before the word toxic was attached to any discussion of men. Sadly, accurate as it may be, True West is ultimately heavy handed despite the efforts of a talented director and his leading men.

Until 23 February 2019-01-04

www.nimaxtheatres.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

"Bat Out of Hell" at the Dominion Theatre

Unlike many musicals based on a back catalogue, you don’t need to be a fan of composer Jim Steinman to enjoy this piece. The music, as its regular performer Meat Loaf appreciated, has a theatricality that transfers easily to the stage. Top-notch production values and performances make the ticket safe value. And there’s an injection of insanity that ensures the show stands out.
As with a previous hit at the Dominion, We Will Rock You, based on the music of Queen, the book for the show, also by Steinman, is set in a dystopian future. A mutation fixing our hero Strat at the age of 18 results in a strange Peter Pan figure. Leaving aside his odd taste in poetry, it makes an ethereally bizarre lead for Andrew Polec, who takes on the part with astonishing bravado. Polec doesn’t deliver a single note without treating it like grand opera and barely stays still for a moment.
Strat falls for Raven, daughter of the dastardly Falco, enemy to Strat’s particular Lost Boys. Why he’s a villain isn’t that clear as the focus is on his marriage. Whatever, there are great performances from Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as both parents, and a look back on their courting is a real highlight. As for Raven, a sincere effort has been made with the role and Christina Bennington tries her best. But let’s just say she still ends up, well… straddling… rather a lot. Add to the Romeo and Juliet vibe, a bizarre Tink(erbell) for Strat’s Rebel Without A Cause, a younger Sal Mineo character  who’s devoted until spurned. There’s no lack of narrative, and it’s all great fun. Remember everyone is as camp as Christmas and the whole thing becomes brilliantly mad.
The music itself is well constructed – you don’t sell as many records as Steinman without knowing a thing or two – but the triumph for the show comes with Robert Emery’s musical direction and Steve Sidwell’s orchestration. Variety is injected into even those famous ballads, adapted into ensemble pieces with performers belting them out. Some of the lyrics are shocking – “You’re a ghost and I’ve been cursed but if you were exorcised it would only make it worse” – but, no matter how bad they are, Steinman repeats lines (a lot) injecting a mock profundity that becomes infectious. To top it all is Jon Bausor’s design, which has two sequences, a bike crash and a drug-induced dream, that use stunning special effects. Such technical skill combined with the inexplicably goofy make Bat Out of Hell jaw-droppingly great.
Until 5 January 2019
www.batoutofhellmusical.com
Photo by Specular

"The Grinning Man" at the Trafalgar Studios

The theatre world often fantasises about the next big British musical, and a home-grown piece is always something to celebrate, so this work, spearheaded by composer and lyricist team Tim Phillips and Marc Teitler, has arrived from Bristol to the West End like a dream. The Grinning Man is original, polished and has a sense of integrity that, while making its success cultish rather than mainstream, wins respect.
The story is a fairy tale, heavy on the Gothic, but for grownups. Set in a familiar work, although with surprisingly little satire, our eponymous hero was disfigured as a child and is now a circus freak show. It’s a star role that Louis Maskell delivers with conviction. With a blind girlfriend and sinister adopted father in tow (Sanne Den Besten and Sean Kingsley), the much sung about “ugly beautiful” appearance of this charismatic changeling alters society for the better. The colourful royal family, with a strong quartet of performances from Julie Atherton, David Bardsley, Amanda Wilkin and Mark Anderson, all fall under his (inexplicable) spell. The only one on stage who seems immune is a villainous jester, for my money the lead of the show, brilliantly portrayed by Julian Bleach and winning most of the laughs.
The tale is as good as any by the Grimms. It’s based on a novel by Victor Hugo, and writer Carl Grose tackles it well. But the swearing, nymphomania and a bizarre incest plot make it adults only. It’s something of a puzzle – the temptation to appeal to a larger audience must have been great. A bigger problem is that the score only interests by including some bizarre electronic sounds and the songs aren’t catchy enough. While the dialogue is good, the lyrics, from Phillips, Teitler, Grose and also the show’s director Tom Morris, are too often uninspired.
Yet the production itself is an unreserved triumph. There’s fascinating movement and choreography from Jane Gibson and Lynne Page, accompanying Morris’s strong direction. And when it comes to portraying the worlds of circus and court, Jon Bausor’s design is magnificent. There’s a lot of puppetry, superb in design and execution, complemented by sets that are like a trip to Pollock’s toy shop. Topping it all, with a range of influences from steam punk to Gormenghast, are terrific costumes by Jean Chan. It’s the attention to detail, the look of the show, that puts smiles on faces.
Until 5 May 2018
www.thegrinningmanmusical.com
Photo by Helen Maybanks

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" at the Menier Chocolate Factor

Four decades is a long time in sexual politics, but it makes this revival of Manuel Puig’s story all the more interesting. There’s no shortage of clichés about gay life surrounding the imprisoned Molina, some of which might make you feel uncomfortable. But, as the relationship with his cell mate Valentin develops into something ‘beyond’ masculine and feminine, we see more clearly now than ever the original intention that Molina is a transgendered character. Missing the opportunity to cast a performer who identifies as such in the role is a debate I leave to others better qualified to discuss. But this timely new version, by José Rivera and Allan Baker, provides the kind of detailed depiction of human sexuality many crave to see on stage.
Jon Bausor’s ambitious design visualises Molina’s fantasy life. As he passes the time recounting and embellishing old movie plots, there are projections on to prison corridors and sound effects. The space surrounding the couple’s cell come into use: as love blossoms, the men start to venture outside, each step they take dramatically thrilling, leading to a magically poignant finale of escape through death. Sorry for the plot spoiler, but it would be surprising if anyone thought the play, set in a police state and full of torture, would end happily. The important point is a victory, of sorts, with both men’s spirits unconquered.
The show is a triumph for its stars, on stage without a break for just shy of two hours. Declan Bennett, well known as a musical theatre performer, shows his strength an actor playing Valentin. He’s a political prisoner and, while this element of the plot, and the tension surrounding it, is downplayed, Bennett convinces as a man of powerful integrity and intelligence. Samuel Barnett takes the role of Molina. He may ham up the more theatrical moments a touch, but he is never less than magnetic. Molina bargains with his captors, acting as a double agent, and there could be the suggestion of more complex motivations on his part. But the strategy is to present Molina wholly sympathetically and, pursuing this, Barnett secures affection for his character, making the show deeply moving.
Until 5 May 2018
www.menierchocolatefactory.com
Photo by Tristram Kenton

"The Secret Theatre" at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Running in repertory with the excellent Romantics Anonymous, this new play by Anders Lustgarten is a similarly accessible affair, with an emphasis on entertainment. Everyone loves a bit of Tudor history and this story of spymaster Francis Walsingham, impeccably performed by Aidan McArdle, delivers plenty of it. While the famed intelligencer comes to find himself trapped by “too many stories” – from the Babington plot, to the Spanish Armada – Lustgarten condenses the happenings expertly, and the exciting intrigue is perfectly marshalled by director Matthew Dunster.
We get a monarch – Good Queen Bess, of course – none other than Tara Fitzgerald rising to the task with the aid of costumes by Jon Bausor. She appears gloriously like a painting at first, in a dress that itself deserves an award. But this is a far cry from the Virgin Queen. Bringing Elizabeth I to the stage must count as the biggest challenge for both writer and performer – and it becomes their biggest achievement. It’s a new take on the queen we can recognise and enjoy: this bullying and foul-mouthed “mad dog” (Lustgarten does swearing on stage very well) is used for dramatic purposes to great effect.

Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle
Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle

Lustgarten has a reputation as a provocative and political writer. His version of Elizabeth might possibly shock if you take his contrary streak too seriously. But the politics, in the form of parallels with our own increasingly surveyed state, are neat and often funny. It’s never subtle, but if you have good point then why not shout about it? Small gripes are the piece’s lack of peril (much of the tension comes from Dunster’s brilliant use of the candlelit venue and composer Alexander Balanescu’s contribution), and that emotion is generally in short supply – although McArdle does his best. But as a spy story the history works as well as you would expect and there are strong turns from espiocrats Burleigh, Pooley and Phelippes played by Ian Redford, Edmund Kingsley and Colin Ryan.
The Secret History is historical fiction that uses the past to tell a new story about our own times. Having done his research, Lustgarten is entitled to play around – and don’t forget that there have been plenty of outlandish theories about Elizabeth. Some of the speculation here is far-fetched, and not all of it is sure-footed: Lady Frances and Sir Philip Sydney have some distinctly modern sensibilities, while a nice try at depicting a working-class perspective isn’t given time to develop. The play escalates into conspiracy theory quickly – but spies are ripe for that and it all works well theatrically. With a nice twist to solidify its thought- provoking ambitions, we are sent home happy and, just maybe, a little wiser about the theatrics behind power.
Until 16 December 2017
www.shakespearesglobe.com
Photos by Marc Brenner

"Imogen" at Shakespeare’s Globe

Matthew Dunster’s new production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is bravely “renamed and reclaimed”. Focusing on the female lead – after all, she has the majority of the lines – is enlightening and provides a star role for Maddy Hill that she proves commanding in. This new take on Shakespeare fits well with artistic director Emma Rice’s vision for the Globe.
Praise first: Dunter’s ability to tell the story is superb. Cymbeline has a complicated plot with plenty of disguises but this production is a model of clarity. The idea of updating the play, with contemporary gang culture and the drug trade is good. The use of voiceovers is inspired. Likewise, casting a deaf actor (William Grint), signing his role as one of Imogen’s long-lost brothers, brings out raw emotions marvellously. There’s a declaratory style that some performers struggle with, and ironically feels old fashioned, but the physicality of this show is commendable.
The biggest coup comes from the work of designer Jon Bausor and choreographer Christopher Akrill. Bausor uses a giant plastic curtain and strip lights to set the scene. Purists won’t like the fact that the theatre’s charm isn’t taken into account, but the cinematic feel of the design is visually arresting and in keeping with the whole. Akrill’s dance adds poetic moments and makes the fight scenes stunning, so much so that bursts of aerial acrobatics seem unnecessary.
But while it all looks great, there’s a flaw here. Cymbeline is a notoriously difficult play, with a plot defying credulity and a final scene so full of revelations it is difficult not to laugh. Unfortunately, Dunster seems determined to play the whole thing for comedy.
Attempts to reflect the violence of this society are unsuccessful. Only Jonathan McGuinness in the title role manages to be frightening. The rest of the cast are hampered by too many interjections just for laughs. Matthew Needham’s Giacomo is a case in point; the disturbing scene where he spies on Imogen in bed becomes a lark. Suffering most is Cloten, played with conviction by Joshua Lacey: the role is reduced to a strutting cock (yes, we get the joke) and a character that should be terrifying becomes a lame joke.
Time after time humour deflates tension, leaving the text flat. There seems little faith in the play’s power to move an audience and the outcome is monotone if not monotonous. Dunster plays out his strategy boldly – credit to him – I just happen to disagree with it.
Until 16 October 2016
www.shakespearesglobe.com
Photo by Tristram Kenton

"You For Me For You" at the Royal Court

American playwright Mia Chung’s work, for the Royal Court’s wonderfully intimate upstairs auditorium, is the tale of two sisters, Minhee and Junhee, who try to defect from a North Korean regime so sinister it is rendered surreal.
Minhee fails, becoming trapped inside a well, beginning a bizarre journey inside her own consciousness and the national identity that has psychologically entrapped her. Wendy Kweh gives a convincing performance as a tortured soul.
Brilliantly visualised and staged by designer Jon Bausor and director Richard Twyman, a vault-like stage with mirrors and projections creates a visual kaleidoscope of action and paranoia. There’s even a bunny rabbit hanging around.
As a technique for understanding the despotic state, the magical realism employed fits well with Chung’s observations on time. You might feel the need for more raw data about North Korea (although that’s hardly the playwright’s job), but the bureaucratic nightmares experienced are depressingly predictable.

Katie Leung and Daisy Haggard
Katie Leung and Daisy Haggard

Junhee’s experience is only slightly less fantastical, and America becomes a subject for Chung’s play, as she ostensibly explores the ’other’. The electrifying stroke is to show the experience of learning English – encountering Daisy Haggard in a variety of roles –moving from speaking gibberish to gradually becoming comprehensible. The technique allies us with Katie Leung’s powerfully performed Junhee, while Haggard gives a literally breath-taking performance.
A fast-paced play, this sibling story doesn’t move as much emotionally as it might. Maybe the sisters’ devotion is taken too much for granted. Possibly Minhee’s tragic backstory is revealed just a little too slowly. But the production is superb and the play highlights the desperation of refugees, from anywhere in the world, with more than its fair serving of poetic moments.
Until 9 January 2016
www.royalcourttheatre.com
Photos by Tristram Kenton

“The Seagull” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Given that The Seagull opens with its hero Konstantin putting on an outdoor performance, Regent’s Park feels a pretty good match for Chekhov’s play. The stunning venue is enhanced by Jon Bausor’s splendid design – a giant mirror hangs above the action, literally adding another dimension to reflect upon. Matthew Dunster’s production looks fantastic, but sadly there’s too much chasing after laughs so the play falls curiously flat.

The problem isn’t so much with Torben Betts’ new adaptation of the play – although the language is sometimes too direct, it can be good to shake up a classic. This version is easy to follow and feels modern. Rather, it’s Dunster’s emphasis on the comedy; he gets plenty of laughs but the humour doesn’t build and the play’s more poignant moments feel thrown away. Some characters suffer dreadfully: Medviedenko, the teacher, is reduced to a comedian with just one punch line, the ever-miserable Masha a wailing drunk and the young leads are simply too gauche. Matthew Tennyson and Sabrina Bartlett hold the stage as the aspiring artists Konstantin and Nina, and their naiveté gets laughs but both actors aren’t given a chance to delve deeper.

Other roles fare better. The writer Trigorin’s ego fascinates. Alex Robertson makes him funny and irritating – a petulant take on the character that’s interesting. And Janie Dee’s Arkadina manages to be at once jolly and roundly three-dimensional. Dunster is strongest with group scenes, highlighting uncomfortable dynamics as an “angel of the awkward silence” is said to descend. Also interesting are the two servants (Tom Greaves and Tara D’Arquian), who giggle at innuendo and silently respond to events.

The production also has the novel device of using a voiceover for character’s thoughts. It’s certainly startling but privileges certain players too much. Frustratingly, despite being inside their heads, we don’t feel any closer to them, and this internal dialogue is used indiscriminately and again mostly just for laughs. Nice try, but this showy device is symptomatic of a production that tries hard but doesn’t hit anything… apart from that poor seagull, of course.

Until 11 July 2015

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has such a long association with A Midsummer Night’s Dream that any production of the Shakespearean favourite is highly anticipated. Director Matthew Dunster’s bold version seeks to challenge any tendency to see the play as comfortable by reimagining the setting as a gypsy camp.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea: it allows a fresh look at a well-known text and affords designer Jon Bausor the chance to create a fantastic set, full of surprises, that Laura Hopkin’s costumes look great on. Unfortunately, it’s a concept that pays few dividends and results in a misguided midsummer night.

The gypsy theme works fine for the play’s quartet of lovers. Making their entrance mid-fight, Demetrius and Lysander, finely performed by Kingsley Ben Adir and Tom Padley, are full of youthful virility. As Hermia and Helena, Rebecca Oldfield is spirited and Hayley Gullivan superb.

In comparison, the fairies are conventionally supernatural. Despite a BMX-riding Puck, they seem to have little connection with the rest of the play and this is hampered by some histrionic performances and laboured choreography. When Titania falls in love with Bottom, the result is crude and silly.

The workmen who perform for the now Gypsy King are another unhappy fit. Valiantly led by George Bukhari, their extended party scene is a surreal mix of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Britain’s Got Talent that pleases the crowd but creates an unbalanced production. Their play within a play is performed in mock-operatic style with great energy, but the laughs they get become a problem as their success jars with the overall feel of the production.

Dunster makes many efforts to inject menace into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, emphasising violence from the start. Theseus’ confession to his bride – “I woo’ed thee with my sword” – remains a threat throughout: their wedding celebrations are fraught. But as a device to add tension the idea is overplayed. Dunster has to add to the play – to the extent of including a karaoke performance! Like much of the show, it’s inventive, but this is a problem that Dunster has created in the first place.

Until 5 September 2012

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 13 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“Ragtime” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s annual musical is an essential part of summer in London. Following hot on the heels of recent successes might intimidate a lesser man than director Timothy Sheader, but this year’s show, Ragtime, is more ambitious than ever. In a season crowded with events, it’s a bold and spirited affair.

Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical is a serious, dark work about American history and ideas, with a complex score that draws on the music from which it takes its title. It’s a challenging piece, taking on racism and terrorism with strong language; and there’s no playing safe for Sheader, who fights to make it relevant and broadens the work in astonishing fashion and to wonderful effect.

Jon Bausor’s excellent design is the first surprise – for last year’s Lord of the Flies he crashed a jet in the park – for Ragtime the auditorium looks like a rubbish dump with the cast entering through a derelict poster for the Obama campaign. Bausor’s work is a perfect match for Sheader’s time-bending twist on a story ostensibly set in 1906. The focus is on the power of politics to change and Ragtime’s ideals are moving ones. In true musical style, the characters’ aspirations gravitate around the world of entertainment: this is a world where dreams and drama occur “in heaven, in trouble and in Vaudeville”.

The production spoils us with strong central performances. Rosalie Craig and David Birrell are superb as a wealthy husband and wife whose lives intersect with the tragedy of a black couple, performed with great intensity by Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki, who makes a professional debut not to be missed. We also get a story of immigrant success, powerfully portrayed by John Marquez, and a host of historical figures that include Stephane Anelli as Harry Houdini in a scene-stealing escape act.

Sheader excels when dealing with Ragtime’s ensemble nature. The whole cast works exceptionally hard and shows great acting skill as well as doing justice to choreography from Javier de Frutos. Although one might consider Ragtime an alternative take on the American dream, it is deeply patriotic. Even though we have plenty of patriotism of our own at the moment, when this cast sings together it is sure to raise goose bumps regardless of the weather this summer – or your nationality.

Until 8 September 2012

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 29 May 2012 for The London Magazine