What to wear to the Theatre 🎭

When I was younger, my biggest theatre experience was going to see The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House each Christmas. In attempt to fit in with the soft, crimson velvet, the gold brocade, the shimmering crystallised ballerinas, I would excitedly shimmy into my most special dress. Usually pink or purple, usually sparkly, chosen for maximum twirling potential. As you get older, though, tip-toed swishing into a theatre in a swirl of colour and sequins becomes slightly less acceptable (at least on a Monday night at a fringe theatre anyway… I reckon Kinky Boots would love it).

Having been lucky enough to see a lot of theatre, this idea of specially choosing what to wear has become rather redundant; a bit of a waste of time. We’re not quite at pyjama-wearing level yet, but after a long or difficult day jeans and jumper seems perfectly fine. Yet last year, when I invited many of my friends to the theatre who’d rarely been before “What shall I wear?” was often the first question they’d ask.

Part of this is to do with theatre’s image problem. Spanning back from the gentleman’s boxes and the wealthy audience sitting on the stage of the early modern stages all the way to the red carpets of press nights today, there’s a sense that you go to the theatre to see and be seen. This despite the fact that there seem to be fewer and fewer intervals in which to parade your finery for the masses; and if there are lots of intervals, it’s so much of a marathon that only comfy clothing will do (looking at you Angels in America). And added to this the fact that in most theatres, we’re sitting in the pitch black for the most part anyway.

It is only to be expected that no theatres have a set dress code anymore for everyday performances. A set of rules about what to wear necessarily excludes certain groups of people, and theatre should be open to all. Plus, the production will not fail because of your pair of grubby trainers. Actors may be a fragile group of people, but I assure you, their training is sufficient that they can carry on, whatever fashion faux par glares out at them from the front row. So rest easy (unless your clothes actually smell – but that faux par is not limited to the theatre).

P.S. When thinking about clothes can be helpful:

For some reason much of the time attendees feel the need to imitate the style of the performance in their outfits. The audience for Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre last year had so many suited men I wondered whether I’d walked into some sort of regional conference by mistake – and sure enough, the play itself was about as interesting. Like draws like, at least where costumes are concerned. If you want to know what a show is like, checking out the clothes of the audience isn’t a bad idea.

#tbt The History of Nutella

Did you know Nutella was originally developed as part of Italian rationing during WW2? That’s right, while us Brits had powdered banana and potato peel pie, and the Germans were literally eating people in some cases (shudders), the poor Italians were forced to eat Nutella. It’s a tough life for some.

Hazelnutty-chocolatey goodness was initially known to hungry Italians as “Pasta Gianduja”. Created in 1946 by baker Pietro Ferrero, it was developed as a way of making up for the shortage of cocoa (thanks to rationing), using the hazelnuts which grow in abundance in the northwest of Italy – Alba, Piedmont to be precise – where Ferrero’s bakery was located. Hazelnuts bulked up the limited chocolate supply.

At first, Nutella wasn’t even in the form we know and love today. It was sold in solid blocks, which one could eat a la a chocolate bar, or lay on top of bread etc. It wasn’t until 1951 that Ferrero began selling a creamy version of “Pasta Gianduja”, which he named “Supercrema”. By 1963, Pietro’s son Michele decided to revamp “Supercrema” in order to market it throughout Europe. The composition was modified again, and it needed a new name: Nutella. The first jar left Alba on 20th April 1964, and was instantly a huge success (the product, not just that one first jar). In fact, as of 2017, you can find Ferrero products in 160 countries! There is even a World Nutella Day on February 5: a day well worth remembering.

So next time someone criticises you for having Nutella on your toast (or eating it straight out of the jar, I see you), just tell them it actually counts as rationing…

Quick Review: SeatPlan

Quick: If you need a lot of information quickly, SeatPlan is the place to go. With details from what’s on, to running times, to actual reviews of individual seats in many of the main theatres of London, Edinburgh, Oxford and more, the site aims to cover a lot. For the most part it succeeds, giving a comprehensive picture of individual productions (down to the play’s history, cast, and ticket details), and of the seats themselves. The site is easy to use, and some of the reviews are incredibly comprehensive.

What a couple of quick browses do show, pleasingly, is that most people are quite happy with theatre seating. Although the reviews get slightly worse as the seats get cheaper, the difference isn’t huge (although there are a few very angry people sitting in the Grand Circle of the London Palladium…), showing that you can expect relatively good views from most seats – hooray for cheap seats!

There are one or two notable absences from the London theatre scene at the moment – neither the Donmar, nor Shakespeare’s Globe seem to be up there, the latter of which, with its odd angles, hard seating, and standing tickets, would surely be particularly useful for tourists. The Oxford site, too, has nothing for the Oxford Playhouse, focusing only on the New Theatre. It would be great also to see some sort of ‘TripAdvisor’ style ranking of the most popular shows, but the amount of information already on this site is staggering. Shows that have pages here are a one-stop for shop for everything you could hope to know.

In terms of finding a seat, the separate scales for ‘Legroom’, ‘View’ and ‘Comfort’ are fantastic; it might be nice to have a tool that allows you to filter by these categories e.g. “show only 5* legroom seats”. This is a site for the planners; for those who prepare themselves for another Hamilton/Angels in America/Heathers rush rather than simply clicking on any seat available whilst shouting at the screen in a frantic panic. If you are this organised person, or a incredibly short/long-legged person, this site will be a godsend.

Quicker: SeatPlan is an incredibly comprehensive site, with everything you need to know about shows on at the moment; from cast lists, to synopses, to maps, photos, show reviews, legroom ratings and photos of the views from specific seats.

Quickest: Add your reviews now!

 

Review: The Writer, Almeida Theatre

You have to have respect for a piece of theatre that makes strangers talk to each other as they leave the building… even if that is only to express their utter bafflement at what they’d just seen. As I exited the Almeida‘s auditorium after a preview performance of The Writer, the young man sitting next to me caught my eye and laughed, “I just… don’t know what to say about that…”. I couldn’t agree more – and that’s a good thing.

Unashamedly provocative, Ella Hickson has created a piece of drama which skates through styles, constant fresh attempts to find the perfect approach to tackle huge themes. How pervasive is the patriarchy? Is it possible to ever escape its influence? What matters more: artistic vision or mass popularity or sales? Intent or effect? Having a clear and uncompromising message, or weakening that message so that it can actually get across to your audience? I’m not sure this play answers any of those questions, something which can only be a strength. This is theatre that makes you think.

Hickson’s formal innovation is experimental and exciting, as we are tossed through events in a young writer’s life. She is adept at switching from genuinely funny, heightened, back-and-forths to realism to mythical storytelling soliloquies and back again. The naturalistic acting is continually undercut by the unhidden scene changes; actors change costumes and members of stage management (almost all women) build the sets in front of the audience, never letting anyone for a moment forget that this is a piece of theatre. The writer’s world, a world which always feels unreal, fake, is created; nothing feels secure or grounded.

Romola Garai in the titular role shows the writer’s growth in confidence beautifully, transforming from doubtful and self-questioning, to someone with a front, a defence up against the world. The number of different orgasms she has to have, each with their own significance, is a thing to behold – if excruciatingly awkward for her audience (now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).

At the risk of sounding like the men in the play (played with superb smugness by Samuel West and Michael Gould), sometimes the writer’s character is too self-involved to the point of being irritating. She isn’t supposed to be likeable, and that’s the point – even an ardent feminist desperate to dismantle the patriarchy will find it hard to empathise with her from very early on. Everyone will – and should – find elements of Hickson’s writing challenging.

Hickson anticipates many of the key criticisms that will be thrown at this piece. Following a mythic – and slightly dull – piece of storytelling in the middle of the play, the male director (Gould) enters: “You can’t end on that!” Cue a sigh of relief  and a burst of laughter from the worried audience. This doesn’t necessarily excuse the flaws, but it makes them seem to have some sort of point. Have we all been conditioned to enjoy quick verbal sparring because that is the male aesthetic? The questions raised just about justify the mild boredom (props also to Richard Howell’s lighting for making the stage beautiful during this section). That being said, surely allegorical tales of a mysterious island without men and over-heightened tales of making love by campfires are not the only option for a female aesthetic?!

You may not like parts of this play. You may not like it at all. But, insidious in its complexity, the questions it raises will stick with you for a long time.

Star Rating: ****

Go if: you like theatre that challenges, questions, makes you think. 

The Writer at Almeida Theatre, London runs until 26th May 2018. 

The show lasts 2 hours, no interval.

Captioned performance on 11th May, Audio Described performance on 19th May.

“The commons, like an angry hive of bees that want their leader, scatter up and down”

Henry VI part 1, Act 3, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

If there was ever a political year we can be certain will be dramatised, it’s 2016. One can only hope it will be James Graham writing the script, given the poignancy and wittiness he lends 1970s politics in This House. blog-3First produced in the National in 2012, this revival was clearly calculated to highlight a growing sense of political déjà vu – see the first three lines of the blurb for details: “Is a political revolution coming? Will the Labour party collapse? Can the kingdom stay united?”

Set amongst the Whips’ offices in the heart of parliament, the play sees the harassed and strained Whips attempt to control a bunch of chaotic and unruly MPs in a government which is hanging by a thread. Sick and dying politicians are wheeled in for motion after motion because each and every vote matters like never before. It’s this atmosphere of chaos, the real drama of politics, which the play captures so well.

The protagonists are the two Deputy Chief Whips. Steffan Rhodri (aka Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey) plays the Labour hardman Walter Harrison, whilst Nathaniel Parker is his slickly spoken Tory opponent, Jack Weatherill. Both of these characters were engaging and, crucially, likeable. blog-4As a rule, it’s the unlikeable characters who create better theatre (see Hedda Gabler, Richard III, A View From the Bridge for details). Here, however, it felt important to give both men some sort of integrity, perhaps because of the political subject. It’s refreshing to see people with contrasting opinions and world-views represented as equally understandable, and equally human. It’s not that the stereotypes of stuck-up Tory and chippy Labourite weren’t there; Malcolm Sinclair was gloriously pompous as Conservative Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins, whilst as his Labour counterpart Phil Daniels was equally gloriously foul-mouthed a la Malcom Tucker. But whilst showing the ludicrousness of British politics in abundance, This House also paints an overall picture of the nobility at the heart of the system. Throughout the play, frazzled MPs complain about the presence of people messing up an otherwise perfect way of government. And whilst that may be true, the ending shows the flipside; that human emotions, codes of conduct, and honour systems, are also part of the beauty of the British political system. blogYou come away with a deep sense of respect for the people behind-the-scenes, who dedicate their lives to making sure the party they believe is right remains in power – even if a sense of futility often haunts their frantic manoeuvrings.

Phew. That’s enough lyricism for one review. Back to the practicalities of theatre. The staging at the Garrick Theatre is mostly well done. There is a sense of streamlined chaos to the people pacing back and forth within the two Whip offices onstage. The best bit of direction is having the Speaker of the House announce each character by their title as they enter (e.g. “the Member for Oxfordshire East”). A small issue was that the Speaker changed after the interval – in itself not a problem, but it made it appear like this new Speaker was a character who’d already appeared. Which he wasn’t. Just a bit unnecessarily confusing.

I also had a big problem with a part of the staging. The blog-6offices are surrounded by the wooden walls of the House of Commons, with a whole upper level of green seats filled with audience members looking down on the action. This in itself is a great idea, an attempt to recreate the intimacy and audience engagement of the Dorfman. However, any action on this upper level was completely invisible to those sitting in the back half of the stalls (like me). The majority of the drama, to be fair, took place on the mainstage, but quite a few scenes (including one immediately after a key character’s death) were totally hidden from view. I understand transfers are difficult, I understand older theatres are built with different requirements, and I understand this may have looked fantastic to the rest of the audience, but theatre is expensive. Just getting there takes effort and time and money, and I think directors like Jeremy Herrin should factor in the view from every seat when they produce a show. That’s not to say everyone has to have a full view at all times – that’s just unachievable – but it shouldn’t be physically impossible for a whole section of audience to see entire scenes.

Anyway, rant over. Despite these flaws, this is an engaging, informative and witty political drama, with an important sense of poignancy throughout.blog-5 The ensemble cast are excellent; I particularly liked Lauren O’Neill as Ann Taylor, the only female Whip, and Kevin Doyle as her boss Michael Cocks. For someone who knew virtually nothing about this period of politics, the anecdotes and stories that feature (including Michael Heseltine seizing the parliamentary mace and John Stonehouse’s fake disappearance) seem almost unbelievable. But funny. The blackly comedic atmosphere is what this play gets right. It makes for an entertaining and powerful night out – just don’t sit at the back of the stalls.

This House at the Garrick Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

“Beauty dead, black Chaos comes again”

Venus and Adonis, line 1020

William Shakespeare

What is it about Ibsen that inspires the most beautiful lighting design? Ghosts was gorgeous, Little Eyolf, for all its flaws, was beautiful, and now Ivo van Hove’s new Hedda Gabler is suffused with the most stunning sunlight, streaming in from one huge wall-window in the stylish white set.blog-6 Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of being trapped inside, away from nature, if I get all English nerd about it. Whatever it is, I’m in favour. The streamlined design of Hedda’s apartment, filling the entire expansive stage of the Lyttleton at the National, makes the ensuing chaos all the more shocking.

I feel like I should warn; this is the very first Hedda I’ve ever seen, so I can’t really compare Patrick Marber‘s translation to any thing else. I did think his classic mix of beautiful and brutal language worked well, was easy on the ear and yet heightened.  I also can’t do one of those extended comparisons with great Heddas of years and theatres gone by. blogRuth Wilson, however, seems to me someone whose performance everyone will appreciate. With the same passionate cruelty she shows as Alice in Luther, her Hedda is by turns raging, witty, seductive, wretched, and elated, but always always utterly mesmerising. The beauty of allowing the whole stage to be just one, largely empty, set is the really the beauty of theatre; you can let your eye wander all over the stage. You don’t have to focus on the person talking all the time, and with Wilson in the background, you can indulge this temptation to the max.
There’s always something interesting to look at. I have to say, I’m intrigued to see how this will work out in the National Theatre Live screening in the new year. Let’s hope they don’t direct our gazes too much, because that would really ruin part of the beauty of this production.

The cast supporting Wilson do not quite match her, but this is no surprise. It feels like they are taking a step back on purpose to let her shine, rather than competing for attention.blog-4 The play is named after her character after all! Rafe Spall grows increasingly threatening as Brack as the play continues, and his final scene with Wilson is classic van Hove menace. Not give anything away – but think blood and lots of it. Not quite the bucket loads like at the end of A View from the Bridge, but a fair amount. Not to sound too much like Anna Mann, but “it was visceral, it was real, it was true”. And for once I mean that non-ironically.

Against the almost sadistic cruelty of these two characters, Kyle Soller as Hedda’s husband Tesman and Sinéad Matthews as school acquaintance Mrs Elvsted bring some much needed sweetness to the stage.
Just like the set, what this production understands is that it is the light which draws attention to the dark, and this is what these supporting characters provide. I was pleasantly surprised with the independence of Mrs Elvsted; she was like a Nora liberated from her Doll’s House. Matthews’ husky voice worked well in the role, although sometimes (very rarely) it became rather too pathetically plaintive for my liking.blog-5  Soller, meanwhile, bounded about the stage, his face showing every high and every low as the emotions hit him, his childish enthusiasm for slippers and tears for his ill aunt contrasting completely with Wilson’s gleeful cruelty. As his rival Lovborg, Chukwudi Iwuji was similarly impassioned, and Éva Magyar was inscrutable as the constantly present and constantly ignored maid Berte.

This is a production of force and passion and energy, revolving around Wilson’s captivating performance. Hedda may not be someone I’m able to understand, but she is certainly someone I’m totally intrigued by. blog-3From the moment you walk into the auditorium, Wilson is there, head down, centre-stage piano, playing the same few notes over and over again. Her ennui is evident; and the repetition lulls us into the same mood, desperate for a proper melody, some proper action. Speaking of, the soundtrack to this production is great, the piano refrain returning transformed into a full song, plus excerpts of better known tunes. But really it is the set that sums up the production for me; a site of beautiful chaos, it provides a simply white background where dark and dirt can shock us even more.

Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

P.S. Shock horror I just realised I used the quote in my last post “I would not be queen for all the world” on a review before! Rest assured this will (hopefully) not be happening again for a while. Blame Shakespeare for not writing enough sentences with ‘queen’ in them…

“I would not be a queen for all the world”

Henry VIII, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

EDIT: Mary Stuart is back! You can catch it now at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 31st March 2018.

Getting to see not one, but two, great, older actresses live is never less than a treat. Add the intense theatricality of these actresses switching roles on the flip (well, spin) of a coin, and you have a stagey must-see. The Almeida was already onto a winner when they cast Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in the same play. Luckily the actors are not let down by either the production or the script of Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart – and the coin toss turns out to be far more than a gimmick.21995_show_portrait_large

For here, the two Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (aka Mary, Queen of Scots), are two sides of the same coin. The former a Protestant and a calculating politician, the latter a Catholic and a fervent lover, their differences are evident. Yet the dual casting highlights their similarities on top of this. Both raised to rule, with a huge sense of entitlement, they were also both imprisoned for long stretches of time by their own family members. The set emphasises this sense of entrapment, with the audience almost surrounding a circular, boxing ring-esque stage. Even though it is Mary who is jailed in this play, as Elizabeth paces about the small space it is clear that she, too, is confined in her role.

One of the most striking scenes for me occurred towards the end, the stage revolving as Mary (Stevenson, when I saw it) was preparing for her execution, Elizabeth (Williams) to face her people. Whilst the Stuart, gowned in a simblog-5ple nightdress, was surrounded by women and taking Holy Communion, the Tudor was forced into full Elizabethan dress, complete with ruff, huge hoop, dead white face-paint and bejewelled wig, assisted only by men. The rest of the production is entirely in modern dress, making this transformation even more powerful. Before, Elizabeth’s velvet pantsuit makes her fit in with her male courtiers; we can see her as a modern female politician, and therefore her harshness and vanity are less excusable. The period costume reminds the audience of just how difficult it was to be a woman in general at the time, and particularly a woman in power. What the production gets crucially right is emphasising the complexities of these characters, retaining a balance so that, for me at least, it was virtually impossible to decide who to agree with.

With one thousand, two hundred and nineteen lines between the two main roles, learning the script alone is an accomplishment for Stevenson and Williams. In the parts I saw them play, I couldn’t fault them; Stevenson was a fiery, incensed Mary, even as Williams was haughty and turbulent Elizabeth. I’d love to see them the other way round to see how much their portrayals differ – although of course the coin-spinning element means there are no guarantees!

The rest of the cast varies. John Light is incredibly intense as the blog-4cowardly, flatterer Leicester, making his weak characteristics clear whilst also showing enough passion to make it clear why both Queens fall for him. Vincent Franklin, too, is powerful as the hard-line judiciary, Burleigh, with David Jonsson, Carmen Monroe and Sule Rimi all putting in strong performances. However, there were a couple of roles that became rather proclamatory. Rudi Dharmalingam as the young rebel Mortimer, was particularly guilty of this, the words becoming quotation-marked ‘speeches’ rather than spontaneous dialogue.

Saying this, even though this production is a lengthy one – over three hours long, including the interval – it is a tribute to the cast and crew that it doesn’t actually feel that long. When my dad and I saw the first act alone was an hour and fifty minutes, we groaned out loud. Weirdly, though, the first half breezed by; it’s the second half that starts to drag. blogIt’s the trouble with a play about real history. Most of us know Mary’s going to die at the end, so her many farewell speeches to countless admirers and handmaidens who only appear at this point begin to feel more like hindrances to action, than particularly stimulating in themselves. Just hurry up and die already!

The production is classically Almeida/Icke, especially the sound design, with almost imperceptible underlying notes subtly creating a tense atmosphere, and dramatic bass drops at every dramatic moment. There is also a curious ticking noise which appears every so often. I struggled with this. Part of me appreciated the sense of impending doom it brought, but it came in and out so randomly I feel like a spent way too long trying to figure out why it came in only at those moments, so that it actually distracted some of the time. #EnglishStudentProblems. blog-3Still, overall the soundscape adds to the tension, and Laura Marling’s songs are particularly effective (I mean, I just like Laura Marling’s music anyway!). The brick wall of the Almeida once again serves as a simple backdrop, with an added element to create the shock factor of Mary’s final execution.

The audience is likewise typically Almeidian (new word, roll with it). Mainly older, middle-class, North London intelligentsia, there are frequent knowing titters and chuckles at any of the overt references to Brexit; and there are plenty of those. The timeliness of the production is stressed constantly – rightly so in many cases, the focus on appealing to a mass audience particularly relevant. I just found the laughter at the idea of these ignorant masses rather smug – although perhaps that’s a problem with the audience, not the production. It would be interesting to see how it would play to an audience made up of less of the metropolitan elite. This is, then, a far more timely production than one might expect of a play about the late sixteen-hundreds. The programme is really great, jam-packed with articles and photos. The coin toss is a great way of creating a tension you can only really get with live theatre and the two actresses are fabulous – this is definitely you want to get tickets for.

Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre: 4/5 stars

“I defy you, stars!”

Romeo and Juliet, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

What makes a five star show?blog 1

To be honest, this is kind of an unanswerable question, but the (very minor) Twitter controversy over my latest “confused” review of Kinky Boots has made me realise perhaps I need to make it a little clearer how I decide my production star ratings.

Many people, including the lovely and incredibly talented West End Wilma felt I was a little harsh giving Kinky Boots only three stars, despite a pretty positive review overall. Now, I concede I definitely wrote that review in rather a hurry, and so it probably does feel a bit confused. However, I stand by the rating.

What’s surprising that usually I’m criticised over being overly generous! And it’s true, I very rarely give a two or one star review – partly because I genuinely do find something to enjoy or something that interests me in almost everything I see (hooray for great theatre!); and partly perhaps because I see more West End and less Fringe theatre (not that Fringe theatre is in anyway worse – in fact it’s often better and more original to boot – but there’s less budget available and with less publicity, perhaps less constant checking for success – though if I’m wrong on this, do correct me!).

My reviews mostly vary between 3 and 4 star ratings, and sometimes I even cheekily sneak half stars in for when I really want to differentiate between very similar but slightly different shows. tumblr_msbcpvIVtG1stovino1_500

A five star show, however, is far more rare. A five star show has to have something other than a great cast, fab set and magnificent directing. For me, it has to be a production that leaves me slightly amazed; one that I just want to talk about to everyone I meet; one that either really makes me laugh or really makes me think. It’s a kind of undefinable quality that perhaps has more to do with me than than entirely the show itself.

Despite this, my aim is always to give five stars to the things I can’t recommend highly enough, the things I truly think you would enjoy and the shows I’m just desperate for you to see so that we can have intense fandom discussions about it!

Urinetown, The Trial, King Charles III have all left me flabbergasted and therefore, in my view, earned their five stars. Brilliant productions like Kenneth Branagh’s The Winter’s Tale and the RSC’s Death of Salesman got four stars because they were technically superb but I didn’t get the feeling, where I want to grab people on the tube and force them to come see it with me because I just know their lives will be better if they do. Kinky Boots got three stars because it was enjoyable, but I felt Charlie was a bit of a weak protagonist; there were elements, such as Lola’s struggle to be accepted in Northampton, that could have been capitalised on further; and I have no real desire to see it over and over again.

Perhaps you disagree. Perhaps you think it’s infuriating not to reward technically excellent productions, or perhaps you just did get “the feeling” from Kinky Boots or something else I’ve three-starred. As to the latter, that is absolutely your right, and it’s one of the things I love most about theatre; that everyone has their own favourite that suddenly thrills and inspired them, and that you can’t predict an audience’s reaction to anything. To those arguing the former, again, that is your perogative. But to feel something is, I think, the point of theatre, and a production technically superb that leaves me cold is not one I would want to recommend unhesitatingly to anyone else.

“Wife and child / Those precious motives, those strong knots of love.”

Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Little Eyolf is an Ibsen play I’ve never actually heard of before, but the five stars I gave director Richard Eyre’s previous Ibsen production at the Almeida Theatre, Ghosts, meant I expected much from the same writer-director-theatre combo.

Indeed, many elements of the production are very similar. blog 5In the script there’s the classic themes of family, claustrophobia, marriage, women and, oh yeah, a love bordering on incest. Not sure I really want to know why Ibsen was quite so preoccupied with this theme… but I think it’s best to move on quite quickly. The set design, meanwhile, is also similar in its use of a single unchanging room and a dramatic sky in the background. As the show begins, we are greeted by a cool, spacious, pale wooden patio, a lower path behind, and dramatic, changing sky behind. A glowing sun rose from behind craggy mountains, and then was speedily covered by darkening clouds. Light, as in Ghosts, is used by Eyre, designer Tim Hatley, and lighting designer Peter Mumford to dramatise the domestic.

To summarise for those who, like me, had no idea what the plot of Little Eyolf is about; Alfred Allmers (Jolyon Coy) returns to his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard), sister Asta (Eve Posonby) and disabled young son Eyolf (Billy Marlow) from a trip away in the mountains, having experienced an epiphany; Eyolf is the most important thing in his life, and he will stop working, stop writing, in order to spend more time with the boy. But if you’re thinking “wow, this sounds ideal, what a great father” thenblog 1 think again. The tension between Rita and Asta, and Alfred and Rita, is palpable from the very beginning, and Alfred’s decision, followed by devastating tragedy, serves as a catalyst, letting all the bitter heated friction come pouring out in floods.

Now, I personally don’t think that this is one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, but it still has some striking themes. However, Coy as Alfred Allmers really let this production down. If you look back at my reviews, I’m not generally one to criticise actors – perhaps because of my sense of the director’s ultimate power, perhaps because the acting standard is so high nowadays, perhaps because I’m a softy.

But this stilted and proclamatory performance was flawed enough that all three of my companions commented on it immediately after the drama ended. blog 3The was Coy played Alfred as this buttoned-up man suddenly dealing with unexpected emotion made no sense when you thought even a little bit about the character’s backstory; Eyre must also be partly to blame here.

Luckily for Eyre, Coy, and us, the two female leads are excellent, and the strength of the production lies predominantly on their capable shoulders. Leonard plays Rita with unspeakable bitterness, and yet her unmotherly emotions, usually an instant cause for condemnation of a character, are expressed with such passion and conviction that, whilst we may not empathise, we can certainly sympathise with her suffering. Posonby, meanwhile, plays a far more sympathetic character and skilfully is able to make the ‘goodness’ of Aster still interesting; the little sister of Alfred, devoted to him, and Rita, and Eyolf, she could so easily be bland or take second place to the fascination of Rita, and yet it was Posonby my eyes were constantly drawn to, even when she had no lines.blog 4

The supporting actors have little to play with really, but the actors did well with what they were given; Sam Hazeldine is likeable as Bjarne but overshadowed by Eileen Walsh’s magnificent Rat Woman, complete with heavy Irish brogue, handbag chihuahua and blackened teeth. Billy Marlow as the eponymous Eyolf was one of the cutest children I have ever seen onstage, and played his surprisingly minor role with piping clarity.

blog 2This production, then, stars several superb performances from the female actors, and a slick stage design, but is let down by both by the script itself, which seems to me doesn’t explore all the issues it raises properly, and by its stiff leading man. Worth going to see for the issues and for Leonard and Posonby’s performances, but not near the standard of the Almeida’s recent productions (Ghosts, Oresteia, Medea).

Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre: 2.5/5 stars

“A very good piece of work, I assure you, and a merry.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

When I heard the Mischief Theatre team were doing a Christmas version of their hilarious hit The Play That Goes Wrong (in my top ten shows of bloglast year in fact), I urged my Mum to book it for the whole family as a Christmas treat – last year we went to see The Scotsboro Boys, a musical which, whilst incredibly thought-provoking, wasn’t exactly a laugh a minute.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre, however, was exactly the opposite. Not particularly thought-provoking perhaps but packed full of laughs, as the poor Cornley Polytechnic Amateur Dramatic Society attempted vainly to deal with an electrocuted Tinkerbell, an uncontrollable revolving stage, and some incredibly indiscrete voice recordings whilst putting on a Christmas production of J.M. Barrie’s much-loved Peter Pannot a pantomime as co-director Chris Bean (played by actual co-writer Henry Shields with aplomb – and such stressed tension I’m surprised the vein on his forehead didn’t burst).

Having seen The Play That Goes Wrong I was a little more prepared this time for the pre-show antics in the stalls, but that didn’t make them any less enjoyable – plus I was thrilled to see a certain Fred Gray who I last saw at the Edinburgh Fringe as the starring role in Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens… this was rather more family friendly of course and involved many less drag queens and sudden strip teases as I’m sure parents will be pleased to hear.

blog 1The play, once it started, took a very similar format to the original version, as is to be expected, except that the directorial apologetic speech was given not only by Chris Bean but also by new co-director Robert Grove (played with enormous gusto by second co-writer Henry Lewis), with a new dimension of competition added to the mix of theatrical disaster and comedic mayhem. In fact, this play as a whole was much more focused on the behind-the-scenes relationships of the actors as well as the slapstick of the original. Apologies, by the way, for referring so frequently to The Play That Goes Wrong, but it is very hard not to compare, given its obvious connection! I did, however, take my Dad with me who’d hadn’t seen the first play – and as a result perhaps enjoyed the Christmas version slightly more than my Mum, my brothers and I.

Now I’m not saying I didn’t have a great time at Peter Pan Goes Wrong – the production has some genius moments (I loved Dennis (aka Jonathan Sayer the third of the co-writers) who, due to not being able to remember his lines, wore headphones throughout, leading to some great moments as he repeated literally everything he was broadcast). And the cast in general are just so comical and likeable and enthusiastic that I would basically go see anything they were in.blog 3 All those who had to battle with “flying” across the stage were particularly impressive; I can’t imagine just doing it right is easy, but to deliberately do it badly and make that funny rather than pathetic or frustrating shows serious talent and practice. Greg Tannahill (Peter Pan – at least for most of it) and Chris Leask (Trevor the Techie, determinedly fixing the scenery no matter what else was going on, and forced to constantly step in and attempt to fix things) were particularly skilled at this whole complicated flying-and-banging-into-things malarkey.

I loved the girl power felt between an effervescent Nancy Wallinger as about a gazillion parts, including a feisty Tinkerbell, and the untiring Charlie Russell, heroically tying the whole play together as the flirty Sandra, playing Wendy to several different Peters. Dave Hearn as the shyly smiling Max, playing both Michael and the Crocodile, had the entire audience behind him by the end. Tom Edden was a new and welcome addition to the group as the Narrator, flinging piles of glitter into the air and jolting on and off the stage on his ‘magical’ chair.

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What I’m trying to get across here is that all the elements of a great show are here; slapstick chaos reigns on-stage and the characters are foolish, obnoxious and arrogant, but also so delightfully determined to complete their show at any cost that you just can’t help but will them along -a bit like Bottom and the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At the same time, for me I felt the focus on the intra-cast relationships sometimes took away from the overall comedy. I always find it irritating in TV shows, like House M.D. or OUAT when the key concept, the originality I started watching the show for in the first episode, becomes lost with writers desperate to focus more on complicated human relationships rather than the plot or the cases or, in this case, the gags.

'Peter Pan Goes Wrong' play, Press Night, London, Britain - 9 Dec 2015

I mean, maybe I’m just heartless and detached and more interested by curiosities than real personal contact but you know, oh well, I am what I am. And my overriding feelings are that the best moments of this very funny play were when it focused on very small elements (a man dressed as a dog stuck inside a door for example) rather than when it had to take on the big themes of love and jealousy.

Still, the cast are fantastic and the jokes are a-plenty, and it’s a lovely Christmas treat for the family – just remember; it’s not a pantomime.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

(And, by the way, Happy New Year! A round-up of 2015 will be coming soon!)