Theatre Overview: January 2017

Just over a month ago I published my resolution of sorts to write more about theatre. Now that January is almost done and dusted, it’s time for my first “Theatre Overview”. My initial plan to choose one show of the month had to be revised as I can’t really rate musicals and plays in the same way.

Over the first weeks of the year I’ve been to the theatre 17 times: I got to see 13 different shows, 9 of them were new. Not bad, considering I’m a repeat attender, but I have a feeling the situation’s going to change dramatically because Sunny Afternoon tour is back on the road after their early January break and I have some plans regarding my visits to various locations to see it. Anyway, first things first: my January theatre shenanigans and some thoughts on the productions I saw.

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Lin-Manuael Miranda and cast and creatives on In the Heights in London

I started 2017 in the rather cold King’s Cross Theatre watching Lazarus. David Bowie’s musical became an important part of my life and I’m glad I saw it 3 times, including my final visit on Bowie’s birthday. It really is a remarkable production and it’ll stay with me for a long time, at least in the form of the cast recording. Of other repeat visits I should mention School of Rock, a love child of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Julian Fellowes. Considering I’m not exactly keen on either, it’s interesting that this show is now on my list of things to see to cheer me up, and I think it’s something everyone should see. It’s fun, it’s loud and it has a great story – something many productions can learn. Another important repeat visit was to see In the Heights. Unfortunately, we had to say goodbye to the wonderful London version, and I’m slightly kicking myself for taking my time to see it and missing out on seeing other cast variations. Still, 11 visits and some time in the same room as Lin-Manuel Miranda happened to be some of the happiest times I’ve spent in any theatre. And, of course, there’s Sunny Afternoon tour. I caught them in Cardiff on their last day there and I am so glad I decided to go – it was definitely the best venue of those I’ve been to so far and the Saturday night show exceeded all expectations. I’m happy to see the tour going from strength to strength and looking forward to seeing them again very soon.

I may say I’ve been lucky so far in terms of new productions. Of the 9 shows I’ve seen, only one made me wish I had booked something different and one left me uncertain of what I’d seen. Here they are, in chronological order.

The Red Barn (National Theatre, Lyttleton)

David Hare’s adaptation of George Simenon’s thriller would probably work much better as a film: even though scene changes and flashbacks don’t make it difficult to follow the story, they slow it down and take some of the intended suspense out of it. Bunny Christie’s set is definitely the star of the show, however, I have a feeling it might’ve been difficult to see some of the scenes from the sides of the auditorium. I went to see it because of Mark Strong, having seen him in a couple of other productions and knowing he’s worth a trip to the theatre. He is very good, no doubt, but the story lacks in novelty and power, I could easily predict what was going to happen a few scenes later and at the very end. It’s meant to be a gripping thriller, but it somehow fails to keep you on the edge of your seat.

RENT (St James Theatre)

This 20th anniversary production of Jonathan Larson’s musical would make its author proud. It has some of the strongest performers I have ever seen, both main characters and ensemble work as a whole, showing excellent chemistry between cast members. Philippa Stefani is a standout as Mimi, totally believable and heartbreaking. Scenes between Layton Williams’s Angel and Ryan O’Gorman’s Tom Collins won’t leave a dry eye in the house. This is my first production of RENT and I’m glad it’s this one. Should I ever see another version, it’ll have a lot to live up to.

Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

Half a Sixpence is a proper feel-good show, full of heart and excellent musical numbers. It’s hard to leave the theatre without feeling impressed by the mood the show sets, despite its simple story. Charlie Stemp is probably the brightest young musical theatre star at the moment. He spends almost all of the time on stage acting, singing, dancing, playing his banjo, sometimes simultaneously, and making it look like the easiest task there is. I’ll be very much surprised is he’s not recognised for his performance at this year’s Oliviers.

Dead Funny (Vaudeville Theatre)

With names like Steve Pemberton and Katherine Parkinson in the cast you’d expect the show to be a hit, but it’s more of a miss, with a half-empty auditorium. It’s not not-funny, it has its moments, however, the below-the-belt jokes lose their appeal 30 minutes into the first half and become slightly weary post-interval. It’s not necessarily bad, the cast are on top form, with the above mentioned Pemberton and Parkinson proving that they’re true comedy geniuses, capable of drama performances as well, but we already knew that from their other works. However, they get a little bit lost amidst the general chaos, good as they are.

Nice Fish (Harold Pinter Theatre)

This West End transfer of the play co-written by Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins sees the former being good as usual at seemingly effortless performance. The play may not be the most action-packed or straightforward production in London at the moment, but it’s enjoyable nevertheless. Simplistic set and clever use of puppets help create the atmosphere of a distant ice-fishing spot. It’s funny at times and touching in other scenes, and it leaves you with a smile on your face without trying too hard.

Art (Old Vic)

Probably some of the most enjoyable 90 minutes I’ve spent in any theatre in the last few years. Billed as a comedy, Art proves this for almost an hour, with the story revolving around three friends, one of whom spends a lot of money on a questionable piece of art, leading to his friends’ disbelief and mockery. However, Art’s high point is Tim Key’s performance as Ivan, who, despite being a little looked down upon by Serg and Mark (Rufus Sewell and Paul Ritter respectively), turns out to be the most multi-dimensional character and wins the audience over in one of the key scenes.

Wild Honey (Hampstead Theatre)

For someone not exactly keen on Russian literature I spend a lot of time watching Russian plays in English. However, Chekhov has always been one of the more enjoyable writers for me and I was glad to get a chance to see Geoffrey Streatfield on stage again. The performance I saw involved a rather last-minute replacement for Howard Ward, who had been taken ill a couple of days before, so the character was played by Simon Slater with an aid of the script as he’d only had a day and a half of rehearsals. However, it didn’t diminish the effect and it was still an enjoyable evening, making Wild Honey an enormous fun and one of the more cheerful stage adaptations of Russian plays I’ve seen, as much cheerful as it’s applicable here, of course.

The Kite Runner (Wyndham’s Theatre)

(NB: This was written after my first visit to see the play, I’ve been to the Wyndham’s twice already and will definitely be back again, more than once.)

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The Kite Runner at the Wyndham’s Theatre

It was a last minute decision as I prefer reading books before seeing their adaptations, but I decided to break my own rule and see the play. I know it’s only January, but everything else I’m going to see this year will have a tough job getting anywhere near the bar set for me by the Kite Runner. It’s a universal story of friendship, loyalty, hope and redemption. I see a lot of different productions, but I won’t lie if I say that I’ve never seen anything so powerful. I spent most of the time weeping in the front row and I can tell you I wasn’t alone. Ben Turner as Amir is the heart and soul of the production, changing between playing a little boy in Kabul and a narrator, a grown-up version of that kid. He’s on stage all the time and he is the sight to behold. Andrei Costin as Amir’s childhood friend and servant Hassan, and later Hassan’s son Sohrab, is making his West End debut and it’s not something I’ll forget soon, if ever. I cried my eyes out over his characters and I hope both Turner and Costin will be recognised for putting everything they’ve got into The Kite Runner.

She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

My friend and I keep breaking theatres: on the day we went to see She Loves Me, they had problems with revolves and had to change choreography and blocking to adapt to the circumstances. It might’ve added a little chaos, but the cast did their job and delivered an excellent performance. My standouts are Dominic Tighe and Katherine Kingsley as Stephen and Ilona. My cheeks ached from laughter and it was such a pleasure to see them on stage together and hear Dom’s wonderful singing voice again. Mark Umbers and Scarlett Strallen are hilarious as Georg and Amalia, they’re perfect together when they both argue and become friends. It’s a wonderful show for cold winter days when something uplifting and cheerful is needed.

That’s about it for January. I have some rather exciting plans for the next month, although they mostly involve repeat visits of sorts, but I’m determined to keep going and hope to have a lot to say about shows that are yet to come.

Musical of the Month: Half a Sixpence (Noel Coward Theatre)

Play of the Month: The Kite Runner (Wyndham’s Theatre)