Review – Mosquitoes, National Theatre, Dorfman Theatre, 16th September 2017

MosquitoesWhat with the grand Lyttelton Theatre and the imposing Olivier Theatre, it’s very easy to forget there’s another space at the National. Round the back, behind the bikesheds, the Dorfman re-opened under that name in September 2014; before then it was the Cottesloe. I read that it underwent a transformation giving it greater sightlines (tick, our view was great) and more comfortable seating (really? It must have been agony before!) I had to check back to see the last time I’d been to the Cottesloe – it was for Dispatches, in July 1979. That’s a gap of 38 years. Blimey. Mind you, that’s not my longest gap between theatre visits to a particular London theatre; like many people, I suspect, I’ve not been to St. Martin’s Theatre since it became the home for The Mousetrap. Last time I was there was in September 1972 for Sleuth. Lord Lumme.

Mosquitoes-10But I digress. Our main motivation to book to see Mosquitoes was not simply to visit the Dorfman, but to see one of our current favourite actors perform in the flesh – the wonderful Olivia Colman. I know that’s a dangerous tactic – if Ms Colman was indisposed, would we have minded? Yes, probably. However, she was disposed to appear and jolly fine she was too – but more of the performances later.

Mosquitoes-1Mosquitoes is written by Lucy Kirkwood, whose NSFW we saw at the Edinburgh fringe in the summer and what a sparky little play that was; and so, unsurprisingly, is this. It’s the story of two sisters; one, cerebral, reserved, with apparently impeccable judgment; a scientist researching on the Higgs Boson project and a pillar of the Geneva Science community. The other is the opposite; corporeal, extremely outgoing and pragmatic, totally flawed and fallible and living in Luton. The scientist (Alice) has a troublesome teenage son (Luke); her sister (Jenny) lost her baby due to a stupid belief that the MMR vaccine is harmful. Making up the happy family is their mother, Karen; once a great scientist in her own right, now a querulous busybody who enjoys making outrageous demands and being shocking, as the early signs of dementia kick in. As the particle collider project comes to a head, Alice’s family make it more and more difficult for her to enjoy the fruits of her research. And when Luke goes missing, it’s the final straw… or is it…?!

Mosquitoes-5Ms Kirkwood’s writing style is a pure delight: feisty, modern, unpredictable and completely believable. Her characters are beautifully sculpted and you get tantalising glimpses into their back-stories and emotions, even if they don’t affect the tale she’s currently telling. The result is a satisfyingly full piece; there’s so much there to consider and to enjoy beyond the plot itself. At times, Rufus Norris’ production is visually vivid with the excitement of the collider project – news screens on the walls, colourful patterns and projections on the floor and instrumentation (in fact, it reminded me of the good old days of the London Planetarium); at others, it’s suitably sparse and pared back, allowing the emotions of the characters take control of the stage. Paul Arditti’s stunning sound effects stop you in your tracks or jolt you out of your seat, depending on how much of a surprise they are. As a fiesta of sight and sound it all has a tremendous impact.

Mosquitoes-7My only quibble with the play is what is surely a hugely unexpected and unlikely outcome regarding the plot development. Without giving too much away, someone does something in this play which you would expect would result in a considerable prison sentence. Someone else carries the can and deliberately takes the blame. However, that person appears to spend no more than a long weekend at Her Majesty’s pleasure (or the Swiss Chancellor’s pleasure I suppose). Given the characters involved, and the legal consequences of what happened, I found it all ridiculously hard to believe.

Mosquitoes-11Lucy Kirkwood’s writing and characters are brought to life by some top-quality performances. Olivia Colman is fantastic as Jenny; a portrayal of someone getting through life just the best she can, despite all the awful things that life throws at her. She’s warm and funny; she’s hostile and challenging; she’s daring and reprehensible; she’s brave and fearless. She gives every aspect of her fascinating character a truly honest airing and she’s just a joy to watch. Olivia Williams makes a fine opponent for her sororal swordplay; her Alice is a splendidly confident, assertive person but when she feels let down by her nearest and dearest she shows she has vulnerability too. Ms Williams treads a beautiful balance between strength and helplessness in a very fine performance.

Mosquitoes-8Joseph Quinn plays the horrendous Luke with just the right level of awkwardness and brattishness; another vulnerable character, Mr Quinn plays him so that he’s not particularly likeable – which is probably very accurate – even when Natalie (a strong confident performance from Sofia Barclay) treats him with cruelty. Their beautifully written “sex scene” – if you can call it that – is played with tremendous humour. Paul Hilton takes the intriguing but not entirely successful role of The Boson, masterminding, observing and expressing all the scientific processes like a slightly mad boffin. I will confess, he sometimes lost me in all that rigmarole. I was always useless at Physics.

Mosquitoes-12Yoli Fuller is a charismatic Henri, and the other minor roles are all played with great conviction. The other star of the show is a wonderfully funny and strangely moving performance by Amanda Boxer as Karen; resolute in her determination not to be put out to pasture either domestically by her daughters or professionally by younger scientists. She’s great at dishing out the haranguing, domineering, battleaxe material, and then retreats into that wheedling, self-obsessed, hard-done-by attitude only too familiar to those with, shall we say, tenacious mothers. Superb.

mosquitoes-4The fact that the 2 hours 40 minutes fly by without your checking your watch is a testament to what an enjoyable production it is. A funny and thought-provoking play, causing human emotions and the clinical world of science to collide like particles in a lab. Beautifully performed and highly recommended, despite the somewhat incredible plot resolution!

Mosquitoes-6P. S. I’m not going to leave it another 38 years before I come back to the Dorfman. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had a pre-theatre lunch at The Green Room directly next door to the National; plenty of gluten-free choices and I can thoroughly recommend it.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mogenburg and Alistair Muir

Review – Rules For Living, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2017

Rules for LivingThe curtain rises and straight away you recognise that comfortable setting; Christmas Day, the living room and the kitchen, a half-decorated tree, and two young people perched expectantly on the sofa. Is it going to turn into Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings by another name? With surprise artificiality, a device projects the words “Rules for Living” on the roof of the house, as if we’d already forgotten the name of the play. Then another surprise; before anyone says anything, the set divides; the living room heads off stage left, the kitchen swerves stage right, leaving a big empty void in the centre of the stage. It already feels like technology is taking over this everyday suburban Christmas scenario.

RFL1Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living first appeared at the National Theatre’s Dorfman a couple of years ago, where it got something of a mixed reception: ambitious and funny, but peculiarly stressful seemed to be the gist, and I entirely understand where that’s coming from. In a nutshell, Matriarch Edith is trying to create the perfect Christmas Day lunch (always a disastrous idea) to welcome back her husband Francis from hospital, who’s been suffering with some undisclosed ailment. Sons Matthew and Adam will be in attendance; Matthew with Carrie, the girlfriend he’s been going out with one year, Adam with his wife Nicole and their teenage daughter Emma, who suffers with depression. As you might expect, the relationships between the sons, their other halves and their mother get progressively strained as the day wears on. Francis comes home, more severely afflicted than Edith had let on, and the day degenerates even further.

RFL2But there’s a twist: and it goes back to that artificiality/technology influence felt in the opening moments. Each of the characters (apart from Francis and Emma) has an individual behavioural trait that they use to cope with stressful situations. Matthew, for example, has to sit down in order to tell a lie. We know this, because it’s projected on the walls and roof. So when Carrie asks Matthew if his mother likes her, and he sits down to say yes, we know he’s lying; you get the picture. Nicole must take a drink in order to contradict. As you can imagine, during a typical lively Christmas Day, quite a lot of contradicting takes place so Nicole gets somewhat boozed up to satisfy this particular behavioural need. And so it goes on. There’s an enormous amount of genuine hilarity to be enjoyed recognising how each character meets their psychological responses.

RFL3Sam Holcroft was partly inspired to write the play as a response to her own experiences of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Emma is undergoing CBT, and it makes her question her own response to the various challenges she faces. Nicole would like Adam to accompany her on some therapy sessions but he’s not remotely convinced. Of course, all the behavioural idiosyncracies that the characters display are ripe raw ingredients for a CBT session. The stress of learning a new card game is another new challenge for Christmas Day; Bedlam – that’s the game – where the rules include your requiring to identify others’ behavioural responses, which the characters attempt to do, whilst still having to obey their own. The furore this causes strongly reminded me of Reg’s wretched board game in The Norman Conquests. No wonder Christmas is stressful.

RFL5It’s a really clever construct; but I always felt aware of a greater being influencing the activities of the characters. The unseen writer truly plays the role of the puppet-master, creating a series of individual havocs that her characters must endure, almost at her random will. I guess that’s the case for any writer creating a story – their characters have to comply with the events that the writer chucks in their path. But the artificiality of it all is really emphasised with this play and production. It’s a most unusual experience. A small part of me wondered if it was an easy cop-out; should we be able to see, through the nuances of the writing, how the characters need to follow certain behavioural paths without having their rules of living flashed up so obviously on a colour-co-ordinated screen? Doing it this way certainly means that the rules are in charge, not the people. The characters even stop what they’re doing every time the rules change, then resume their path to their fate, like flies to wanton boys.

RFL4The cast absolutely pull out all the stops to mine as much humour from the situation as possible, and there are some beautiful moments of physical comedy, classic farce, and an outrageous food fight to enjoy. Jane Booker’s Edith is a superb portrayal of a control freak who needs her own versions of a “little helper” when she’s thwarted. Carlyss Peer turns into more and more of a musical theatre travesty as she shows Carrie’s way of coping with anxieties and rejection. Ed Hughes’ Adam turns from nice guy into sarcastic sod in order to protect himself from his own self-loathing, Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers reflecting his permanent state of mendacity, and Laura Rogers’ Nicole’s tongue gets loosened by alcohol the more belligerent she gets. It’s almost as though Derren Brown has had a session with them before they went on stage so that they react to individual trigger points. There’s a nice irony in the fact that the physically suffering Francis, a delightful performance by Paul Shelley using only a few words but wicked facial expressions, is the only character who mentally knows precisely what he wants and has no compunction about getting it.

RFL6It’s extremely funny and very thought-provoking; despite its Ayckbournian setting it’s a highly original look at a familiar domestic disaster zone. Abbreviate Rules For Living, add an “o”, and you get RoFL, which rather sums it up. And spare a thought for the stage management team who have to clear that mess up after every performance. If you’re wearing nice clothes, I wouldn’t sit anywhere nearer the stage than the third row! This is a co-production between the Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and after its few weeks in Northampton, it tours to Cambridge, Windsor, Brighton, Ipswich and Kingston. You have to see this one!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Half a Sixpence – revisited – on its last night – Noel Coward Theatre, 2nd September 2017

Half a SixpenceLast Christmas (no, this isn’t a George Michael tribute, but God bless him nonetheless) we saw Half a Sixpence as part of our usual let’s spend a few December nights in London seeing shows because we never go out ritual. Here’s the link to my blog review of that great night. We felt totally exhilarated by the end in the knowledge that we’d not only seen a great show but also a fantastic new star in the shape of Charlie Stemp.

charlie-stempEvery so often, I get visited by Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears – I’m sure they call on you too – and they tempt me with things I really shouldn’t do. But earlier this summer, they suggested I book for the last night of Half A Sixpence. It’s going to be a great party, they said. Sounds like an excuse for champagne, they said. The atmosphere will be overwhelming, they said. And do you know, they were right! But would Mrs Chrisparkle be on board for such self-indulgence? You betcha!

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempWe’d seen An American in Paris in the afternoon, so, fully satiated with well-meaning, classy yet slightly dull entertainment, we were absolutely in the mood for a right royal Folkestone knees up. We arrived at the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre in plenty of time to settle down in Noel’s Bar and crack open a half bottle of Verve Cliquot before the show, which, I think it’s fair to say, prepared us in the best possible way. I bought another programme, so I could see to what extent the cast had changed since last December: answer, not at all. Absolutely the same cast. No one had left. That tells its own story. It must be such a delightful production in which to be involved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsThe theatre was packed – the vibe was truly excitable; this audience is going to give the show its best possible send-off, isn’t it? Oh yes it did. From the moment that Mr Stemp and Devon-Elise Johnson ran into the auditorium and jumped up on the stage to portray Arthur and Ann as kids, the theatre simply erupted. This is going to overrun by at least half an hour, I reckoned. Actually, I was wrong; the cast enforced discipline on us by carrying on pretty promptly after each song – not like when we saw the last night of A Chorus Line, where the audience dominated the proceedings so much with their gratitude and fandom that the cast couldn’t hold back their emotions at all.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamAs each scene and number followed each other, the audience kept up their frenzied response. By the time we’d reached the interval, with Charlie Stemp’s Kipps drenched under the real rain, I genuinely felt like I needed a rest, as my mouth muscles were beginning to spasm from my permanent smile. Whilst stretching our legs (a euphemism for heading to the bar), we overheard one lady say to another “You must come and meet Cameron. In the Albery Bar. Upstairs.” We looked at each other with mischievous intent; shall we gatecrash? No, quickly coming to our senses, let’s not risk being turfed out on our ear. We hadn’t heard Pick out a Simple Tune yet.

ian-bartholomewNow that I’ve mentioned that song title, if you’ve seen the show, that tune has already earwormed itself back into your brain. That scene was as fantastic as I remembered. After its rip-roaring reception from the audience, it put a whole new meaning on Lady Punnet’s assurance that you can’t have more fun than at one of her musical evenings. I’d also forgotten how wonderfully pompous Gerald Carey’s James is when he’s being sonorous on the organ, tossing back his foppish hair, and checking to make sure everyone else has noticed how superb he was. Mr Carey came into his own again as the photographer in Flash, Bang, Wallop, revelling in every single double entendre magnificently. FBW brought the house down as you would expect.

pick-out-a-simple-tuneIt was only at the end that the cast started to drop the professional façade and showed us how much they loved the response. Mr Stemp wasn’t allowed to join the other members of the cast for the joint curtain call until we had elongated his personal ovation for several minutes. Cameron Mackintosh appeared on stage to give a final thank you speech and it was a thoroughly joyful experience. He said he hoped it wasn’t the end for this production – and I don’t see how it can be. This is born to tour and continue to delight audiences of all ages for years to come. A magnificent success for Cameron Mackintosh, Chichester, Charlie Stemp and all the cast. But we still didn’t find out about the results of their filming the show over some of the last performances. Will it appear on BBC4 over Christmas like Gypsy did a couple of years ago? I’m really hoping so.

Congratulations to all. Half a Sixpence, London will miss you!

Review – An American in Paris, Dominion Theatre, 2nd September 2017

An American in ParisIt’s been a few months now since An American in Paris hit the London stage, a much-awaited Big Ticket with a strong reputation for great dance and musical magic. It will probably come as no surprise to you, gentle reader, to discover that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have seen the film (we’re useless cinemagoers) so I came to the show without any preconceptions or knowledge of what to expect.

AIP 4The original movie is of course a product of the Hollywood machine, with a score by those legends George and Ira Gershwin. I knew many of the songs, but didn’t know they came from this show. I Got Rhythm, ‘S Wonderful, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, The Man I Love, They Can’t Take That Away from Me… all show classics. To do the film justice, I’m guessing they concentrated on high production values, and as a result the show looks stunning. The sets are inventive, with an amazing use of projection to create different locations at the flick of a switch. The orchestra is fantastic, making those famous songs sound truly superb. I particularly loved the whole performance of “I Got Rhythm”; how it starts off as a languid, rather funereal anthem and so unlike the party piece we all know and love, but then gets a kick up the rear with a funky arrangement. The orchestra play it again as the entr’acte music and it’s absolutely brilliant.

AIP 11There’s also a great cast. When I checked my programme – more of which later – I was delighted to see some favourite names in there. Jerry is played by Ashley Day, who was a sensational Curly in the touring production of Oklahoma! a couple of years ago. Zoe Rainey, who was a stylish and charming Hope in Sheffield’s Anything Goes, plays Milo Davenport with elegant enthusiasm. Ashley Andrews, superb in both Drunk and Mack and Mabel, shines as the difficult choreographer Mr Z, and there’s even the evergreen Jane Asher providing a frosty warmth to the role of Madame Baurel.

AIP 10However, something’s just not right. It was Mrs C who pointed out that for some reason it just does not add up to the sum of its parts. Once you’ve got over the amusing set up of having three friends all chasing the same girl and none of them realise it, the story is paper thin, and doesn’t really sustain two hours forty minutes. The famous American in Paris ballet sequence, which acts as the climax to the show, whilst musically strong and immaculately performed, left me just a little bit bored. Leanne Cope, who plays Lise, is a remarkable performer for her combination of ballet (a First Artist at the Royal Ballet) and superb voice, but for me she maintains that beautiful ballerina countenance at the expense of emotional reaction to all that happens around her. I never got that spark of attraction between her and any of her three suitors, so their combined plight was never as moving as I’m sure it ought to be. It was like observing an immaculately beautiful museum piece, finely constructed by a master craftsman, but almost totally devoid of passion. There’s a slight disconnect in the dance too, with Miss Cope’s feet firmly in the ballet camp and Mr Day’s firmly in musical theatre, so that when they dance together something doesn’t quite gel. The ensemble and swings do an amazing job at filling the stage with their colourful energy but, again, I felt that some of Christopher Wheeldon’s choreography lacked a little imagination. So it all never really soared.

AIP 2I was also slightly disappointed at the way some of the big numbers came across. ‘S Wonderful felt like a very slight kind of song somehow, like a wispy feather struggling to stand still in a breeze. I’ll Build a Stairway to Heaven was given a very grand Hollywood setting (think the finale to A Chorus Line but even more so) but it seemed strangely inappropriate; for me, the look and the sound clashed. I can’t explain it more; I simply remember watching the performance and thinking, no, this isn’t for me. And I like musicals!

AIP 7There’s a running joke in the show that Jerry’s designs for the American in Paris big ballet sequence are not up to Mr Z’s demanding standards, and it’s only when Milo Davenport threatens to remove the funding for the show that Mr Z relents. The adaptation of Jerry’s designs to the actual staging of the number and the costumes of the dancers is incredibly well done – technically fantastic. However, I think I have to agree with Mr Z. When it actually came to the big number, I thought the abstract designs were rather cheap looking, and didn’t enhance the narrative of the dance.

AIP 8You’d think from this that I didn’t enjoy the show. Not true – I certainly did. There was so much to appreciate musically and from the performances, and from the entertaining script (I enjoyed the occasional tongue-in-cheek references to George Gerswhin!) It looked sumptuous, and the orchestra were fantastic. It’s just that we didn’t connect with it. Still, a very appreciative house did; and I see that it has recently extended its booking to April 2018, so it’s obviously doing something right. I’m very glad to have seen it; I wouldn’t want to see it again.

AIP 1P. S. The programme is a big colour brochure full of great photos (but then so is their website). £8. “Do you have smaller ordinary programmes, or is this the only one”, I asked the slightly surprised programme-seller. “No, this is it”, she replied. I duly paid out my £8, and wondered how I was going to break the news to Mrs C. It was so big I could hardly stuff it into my man-bag. I’m not going to use the words “rip off”, because it’s probably not bad value for what it offers. It’s just that it almost offers too much! For £8 I could buy a week’s worth of undies at Primark.

Production photographs by Johan Persson and Helen Maybanks

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Penthouse, 26th August 2017

PenthouseI’m expecting our next play to tell a fascinating story of a gifted, lucky life turned to dross. It’s Penthouse at theSpace on Niddry St (Lower) at 16:45 on Saturday 26th. Let’s read the blurb: “Ewan is one of the country’s most intelligent young bankers. However he’s just lost close to £1.4 billion of investors’ money in an illegal trade he should not have made. His plan? Hire the penthouse of a hotel and indulge in a blowout before ending it all. Everything is turned upside down when he meets an escort called Eloise. Sex, drugs and depression blur Ewan’s perception of reality. Penthouse offers an insight into the world of bankers and the pressure they face that can lead them to take their own lives.”

Penthouse 2In this day and age it asks a lot of an audience to feel sorry for a banker, but I wonder if this might just do it. Written by and featuring Ed Brody, the remainder of the cast are Cat Lamb, Ryan Hutton and Dario Coates. Check back around 6 pm to see what we thought of it. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Great little play, and acted with tremendous attack and class. All four characters are totally convincing and the four actors all put in fantastic performances. I was really hoping for a different ending…. but I guess its resolution is the most credible. On reflection, it’s a shame that the promotional material gives away a substantial part of the plot, which the text actually nicely hides until a final reveal. Still, an excellent show.

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – Fragile Man, 26th August 2017

Fragile ManAnd our last day at the Edinburgh Fringe has already come around! We’re starting off with Fragile Man at Space 2 @ theSpace on the Mile at 11:50 on Saturday 26th. Here’s the blurb: “On an isolated hilltop two men must confront their darkest secrets and deepest fears in a chance encounter destined to change their lives forever. An unsettling and insightful drama exposing two men’s fight for truth, justice and survival. Developed into an original script through improvised workshops, Fragile Man highlights the difficulties that can accompany ‘becoming me’ and the mental and emotional struggle we face to know our true selves. Its themes delve deeply into our shared experience of being human, exploring fate, faith, envy, self-preservation and the dawning reality of our own fragile mortality.”

Written by David Martin and performed by him and Richard Miltiadis, this play was written in response to the high numbers of suicides by men in western Europe. I’m sure this is going to be hard-hitting and thought-provoking. Check back around 1 pm to see what we thought. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Very dark. I’m not sure I really liked it very much, to be honest. There’s a degree of contrivance which makes the two characters almost reverse roles, and there’s quite a lot of self indulgent dramatic poses that I don’t think helped. I found it rather cruel; Mrs Chrisparkle thought it rather glamourised suicide attempts. I think we’ve seen other plays that have tackled the subject better. Sorry! 

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2017 – The Tinder Tales, 25th August 2017

Tinder TalesOur next show is quite short but hopefully it’s none the worse for that. It’s the King’s Players’ production of The Tinder Tales at Mint Studio @ Greenside @ Infirmary Street at 17:20 on Friday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “A narcissistic toothbrusher. A guy who wants to be his dog. A girl still attached at the umbilical cord to her mother. Who is the Tinder match behind your screen? What would you do if it was you? Based on real life interviews about online hook-up misadventures, The Tinder Tales explores the highs and lows of the contemporary dating scene. We invite you to join us on an (optionally) interactive series of fly-on-the-wall dates where we explore the awkwardness, hilarity and horror that anonymity seems to breed.”

I’ve absolutely no experience of dating apps so I’m expecting entertainment and education in equal measure! I’ve read a review that looks very promising, although I’m wondering if it might feel a little static. Check back around 6.15 pm to see what we thought. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

A very intriguing little play, with individual stories of Tinder success and failure (mainly failure, tbh) delivered smartly by a talented troupe of young actors. I liked the fact that some accounts wrong-footed the audience when you realise the sex of the actor isn’t always the sex of the story teller. Recommended!