Saturday, 20 December 2014

Theatre Review: The Crucible

Earlier this week I went to see a cinema screening of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, a production on at The Old Vic earlier this year. I love going to these as I quite often find out about shows that were on ages ago that I didn't get to see, so these cinema screenings mean you don't have to miss out on things. A very chilling, gruelling piece with little comic relief, The Crucible is definitely one to steel yourself for.

Written in the 1950s, The Crucible tells the partially fictionalised story of the Salem witch trials that took place in America in the late 17th century. The play opens with a panicked Reverend Parris watching over his seriously ill daughter Betty, as it is assumed that her illness has come as a result of exposure to witchcraft. Several women throughout the play are accused of witchcraft by the rather psychotic 17-year-old Abigail Williams, including Elizabeth Proctor, the wife of Abigail's ex-lover John Proctor. This, of course, makes for a very tense atmosphere for both the characters and the audience.

My initial reaction was shock about how long it was. It runs at around three and a half hours, not including the ten minute interval, so it was quite a long time for me to sit still and pay attention! That said, I did find the majority of it really gripping. There is a really powerful, dialogue-free movement sequence at the beginning of the play, all amidst a lot of smoke which sets a suitably eerie tone for the rest of the play. Samantha Colley who plays Abigail is fantastic as she is believably manipulative and unhinged whilst accusing people of witchcraft. Natalie Gavin is also really strong as a servant to the Proctors who gets caught up in the accusations of witchcraft and is torn as to where her loyalties lie. Although she has a fairly small part, I thought Sarah Niles who plays Reverend Parris' slave Tituba was brilliant and really stood out for me.

I did find in parts of it there was a bit too much shouting and not a lot of variety in the levels of speech, if that makes sense. One of the main culprits for this is the play's selling point, Richard Armitage, who plays John Proctor. I wasn't 100% sold by his performance as it becomes a little monotonous and unconvincing. As for the filming of it, it's sometimes a bit too cinematic for me, with closeups and fading in and out. Some will disagree with me on this but when I watch cinema screenings of theatre performances, I like them to be as similar to seeing the real thing as possible, with no fancy special effects or filming.

Overall, I think it's really well-put together production that remains gripping and core-chilling throughout. Definitely worth a trip! It's on for a while longer I think in lots of different locations around the world if you fancy seeing it.

Have any of you seen it?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Theatre Review: Visitors

A few weeks ago I went to see new young writer Barney Norris' first full-length play Visitors with my university drama society at the Bush Theatre in Shepherd's Bush. I knew absolutely nothing about the play before getting tickets but I rather enjoyed it. In a society where one-night stands with strangers and non-committal relationships have become the norm, I think Barney Norris has managed to create a touching piece of theatre about marital love, family life and growing old together.

Taking place in the Salisbury Plain farmhouse of elderly couple Arthur and Edie, the play follows the pair’s decline into old age and its all too frequent companion dementia. Recognising that life is no longer as easy for them as it was, their son Stephen enlists university graduate Kate to be their carer whilst he attempts to put his mother into a home and sell his parents’ farm, naïve to the unsettling effect these changes will have on all involved.

Whilst this play, entirely set in a living room, takes some time to gather momentum, the chemistry between Arthur (Robin Soans) and Edie (Linda Bassett) is convincing from the outset. Bassett is especially strong in playing an elderly woman descending into dementia; her condition is not evident from the start but when she repeats an anecdote for the third time the heart sinks as you realise what she is coping with. I think Norris hit the nail on the head with Edie as she often makes remarks that make the audience laugh without realising she is being funny, in that way that grandparents often do. For such a young writer, Norris seems to have an incredibly perceptive understanding of dementia and of the elderly, creating a poignant character whose condition will resonate with many. Because of the intimate setting the audience was made to feel like intruders at times into such personal family dilemmas - it reminded me of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming in that sense.

With the first half slightly lagging in pace, tension rises in the second half as Edie deteriorates and Stephen’s marriage falls apart. Simon Muller’s accurate portrayal of Stephen as a middle-aged man unable to do anything right in his life creates a sense of pathos in the audience. I don't know if this was the intention but I often felt very sorry for Stephen as he was quite a pathetic, helpless character in the depths of a mid-life crisis, who tried to get things right but didn't quite manage. However, the audience's sympathies simultaneously lie with Kate (Eleanor Wyld) who is disgusted with Stephen’s incompetence. I felt both Kate and Stephen's characters were far more developed in the second half and I enjoyed their performances so much more.

There were several really touching moments and comments about the fast, incessant pace of life and how we all have so much less time than we think we have, which means we take the time we have for granted. It really did make me think about it afterwards. All in all, Visitors is at once funny and tragic, heartfelt and brilliant, and is sure to make every audience member want to call their mum afterwards.

This is on until the 10th January at the Bush Theatre; if I had been organised and posted this right after I saw it, it would've allowed a lot more time to go and see it, but alas!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Theatre Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

(Image: Brinkhoff/Mögenburg from the National Theatre website)

Last week I went to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Gielgud Theatre in London. Having read the book when there was a craze for it in Year 6 and it remaining one of my favourites to this day, I was so excited when Simon Stephens first adapted it for the stage. (As an aside: Simon Stephens seems to be everywhere at the moment! What isn't he currently doing in the West End?) I saw the National Theatre Live version at a local cinema when the show first opened and absolutely loved it, but of course it really doesn't compare to seeing the production live. 

I would go as far as to say that it is one of my favourite theatre productions that I've seen, and I see a lot of theatre so few make that cut. (Don't ask me about my favourite musical, I will never be able to narrow it down.) 

I think the staging for this show is absolutely fantastic; motifs of physical theatre are used throughout and it's so effective in the parts where there is no dialogue. I especially loved the parts when it acted as a window into protagonist Christopher's thoughts, giving them an almost fantastical element. My friend who I went to see it with informed me that the physical theatre in the show was created with the help of theatre company Frantic Assembly who are known for crafting contemporary pieces of physical theatre, and it makes sense when you know their work as it's really what they're all about. As you can see from the above picture, the set was amazing too and so appropriate for the show. They frequently made use of lights, grids and boxes to give the audience a glimpse into Christopher's mind. 

Speaking of Christopher, I liked his performance but somehow couldn't shake the performance of Luke Treadaway who originated the role of Christopher from my mind. He was so fantastic in the NT Live production I first saw that I feel like no one else could do that role as well, for me. In fairness, Luke Treadaway did win an Olivier for his performance in Curious Incident so he would be a pretty tough act to follow! Christopher, although sometimes difficult and awkward, is such a touching character and I think it's so important that we as an audience warm to him, and in both performances I've seen now I definitely did. I also thought that Nicolas Tennant who played Christopher's dad was brilliant; the way in which he struggled to react towards his sometimes difficult son was so subtle but so on point. If you have read the book then you will know how it touches on the difficulties of life but also celebrates it, and I think the stage production made a valiant effort at capturing that.

I absolutely cannot recommend this enough. I think it's a genuinely brilliant production and deserves every bit of success it's had. Get yourself to the Gieldgud Theatre and see this ASAP.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Theatre Review: Of Mice and Men

(Image: Ellie Kurttz for the Birmingham Rep website)

I went home for reading week last week and after spending many hours writing essays, referencing and reading, I went to see the Birmingham Rep's production of Of Mice and Men. I, like many people, studied the book by John Steinbeck at GCSE and loved it so I was really excited to see it adapted for the stage.

For those of you who don't know, the story follows two men called George and Lennie who are struggling to find work during the Great Depression in America. They do everything together and are very much dependent on each other. Being set in the Great Depression, their story is not without its troubles and doesn't end very happily. (That's as much of a spoiler as I'll give!) I thought the whole production was really well executed. The two leads, Michael Legge and Benjamin Dilloway as George and Lennie respectively gave really strong performances, particularly Dilloway as he really made you warm to Lennie and feel so sorry for him. The two leads had so much chemistry and you could really believe that they were close companions. I thought that James Hayes who played Candy was really good as well; he is an old worker at the ranch George and Lennie end up at and he really characterised the whole futility of the American Dream which is what the book is all about. Even though I knew what was going to happen at the end I found myself getting so tense watching it as I was hoping there would be some miracle whereby it all ended happily!

The set was really effective, the stage was just made of exposed wooden planks which made it look really rustic and convincingly like a ranch in the 1920s. They changed it at the interval as well so there was a huge wooden chute in the middle of the stage which ended up being used for a very dramatic climax. I also thought the use of props was really clever; Candy has an old dog in the book and so they had made a dog out of jute or something similar and the actors manipulated it so it looked as though it were really alive. I thought that was really imaginative and this kind of rudimentary prop added to the whole rustic vibe, I felt.

I would thoroughly recommend it but I've just noticed that the run of this has now finished so I haven't timed this post very well! I wanted to share it anyway because I loved the production so much. Perhaps if it was very popular they may bring it back, so keep your eyes peeled...

Friday, 24 October 2014

Theatre Review: Shakespeare in Love

(Image: Johan Persson on

NB. I originally wrote this for my university newspaper but thought it was worth sharing on here too.

“Comedy, love – and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want,” theatre mogul Henslowe tells Shakespeare who is at a loss for ideas. And that is exactly what Lee Hall’s imaginative revival of Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre provides us with. I am a little sceptical towards the current trend of turning any film into a stage show, but this adaptation unquestionably does the 1998 film justice.

The romantic comedy tells the story of a young Shakespeare struggling with writer’s block, who finds the inspiration to write Romeo and Juliet when he falls in love with the wealthy Viola De Lesseps (played by the consistently ardent Lucy Briggs-Owen) whom he unwittingly casts as the male title role his new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. This inevitably goes to pot when he realises that the Thomas Kent he has cast as Romeo in his play is, in fact, a woman, and it is illegal to have women performing on stage. Needless to say, all is resolved and the unpromising-sounding play is a success. Perhaps not historically accurate or a plausible plotline, but entertaining nonetheless and probably still more feasible than some of the bard’s own storylines.

With witty quotations from Shakespeare’s works and cultural references to other Elizabethan writers, Hall’s adaptation of the film manages to be at once humorous, romantic and touching. Shakespeare, played by the dashing Tom Bateman and his friend and fellow writer Marlowe, played by David Oakes, have an entertaining camaraderie throughout the play: Marlowe helps the young Will to craft eloquent verse when he feels uninspired and acts as an excellent wingman by feeding what would become Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 18 to him as he stands under Viola’s balcony, attempting to woo her. Oakes was really strong throughout, making it all the more poignant when Marlowe is stabbed to death in a pub brawl. (No spoilers here: that was one of the few historically accurate events of the play.) A dog called Spot (clearly named so for the “Out, damned Spot!” opportunity) features as a cameo throughout for the audience and Queen Elizabeth I to coo over, as she repeatedly mentions that she “loves a good dog” in a play.

As the play continues, so Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is played before a rather sassy Elizabeth I, portrayed by Anna Carteret. I felt that the second half was padded out a little too much with scenes from the real Romeo and Juliet. It was a nice idea initially for us to watch the play within a play (very Hamlet-esque) but it was dragged out for a little too long, although perhaps it would be ideal for people who can’t be bothered to watch the real two hours’ traffic at the Globe. That aside, I think it is a very cleverly written and performed piece of theatre that is certain to entertain anyone even vaguely familiar with Shakespeare (or, at least, Joseph Fiennes as Shakespeare).

At any rate, it’s worth seeing for the dog.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Book Review: Pretty Honest

The long-awaited beauty bible from the Guardian's in-house beauty writer Sali Hughes has finally landed and has already received masses of praise from its readers. And deservedly so. This satisfyingly heavy tome is comprised of several essays on different topics related to beauty: brows, red lipstick, skincare, nail painting... you name it, Sali's covered it. The essay format of the book lends itself well to  being a reference book you can keep coming back to when beauty issues arise. That said, Sali's witty, frank, no-nonsense style of writing becomes addictive and so I all but devoured my copy in one sitting while my uni reading sat neglected on my desk.

I think this book would be appropriate for beauty aficionados and novices alike as it covers basics such as skincare and foundation but also contains the more nitty-gritty scientific information about products that we hardened beauty addicts crave. It also caters to both young and old audiences with chapters on anti-ageing and teen beauty - there really is something for everyone who has even the slightest interest in beauty. She recommends products for all budgets so those of us who need to save cash need not feel guilty for spending money on beauty fodder - I love this as I think so many women can be conned into buying unnecessarily pricey products when there are so many great budget options on the market. Sali has also written chapters on less common beauty topics such as the benefits of beauty and self-indulgence during pregnancy and illness which I'm certain will be poignant for many women who have been through either or both.

Although Pretty Honest will eventually be available in paperback, I think the hardback copy is worth buying because it looks and feels beautiful and will be something you will want to refer to for years to come. It would also make a lovely Christmas present for any girls in your life who are interested in beauty or just don't know where to start with it.

You can find the hardback copy of the book here.


Sunday, 2 February 2014

Theatre Review: Wendy & Peter Pan

(Image: Manuel Harlan from the RSC website)

I know, another theatre review! I guess I've just seen quite a lot recently that's been worth talking about. Wendy & Peter Pan, so called as it's supposed to be Wendy's side of the children's classic story, was the RSC's big Christmas show this year but the run doesn't finish until March. I was really interested to see it as loads of people from my youth theatre had seen it and returned with very mixed opinions - some said it was fantastic, others hated it and described it as throwing round feminist terms for the sake of it. With that response, I had to see it for myself.

I have to say, I really liked it. To be honest, I was struggling to see what people could hate about it as there was nothing that stood out to me as being awful! First off, the set used throughout was incredible - complete with skull-encrusted pirate ships and slides into underground grottos, it was very visually impressive. I loved all of the flying and the use of physical theatre as well as I think it made it really magical. I actually thought that although it was aimed at kids 11+, I definitely wouldn't want to take anyone much younger than that as parts of it were quite dark and there was some more adult humour included for the parents. I thought parts of it were quite funny and that the script was well-written. Although it pretty much stuck to the original story of Peter Pan, they included some backstories such as why the Darlings' parents were unhappy as they were which were really interesting and added to the story, I thought. Now, for the feminist thing: yes, Wendy was arguing that she shouldn't have to be the damsel but as for bandying around feminist terms unnecessarily, I didn't think that was true at all. It touched on society's constructed male and female roles but other than that it really wasn't mentioned explicitly. I thought that Sam Swann and Fiona Button who played Peter and Wendy respectively were brilliant and really threw themselves into their roles.

In summary, I really enjoyed it and would say that it is well worth watching. I thought it was really magical and an interesting retelling of a well-known classic. It's on in Stratford until the 2nd March if you're interested in seeing it.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Theatre Review: Showstopper! The Improvised Musical

(Image: On Fife)

Last Saturday I went to see a company called The Showstoppers improvise a musical at the Warwick Arts Centre. How is that possible?! I hear you ask. I thought the same thing before I saw it which is exactly why we booked tickets in the first place. But, I can assure you, it works. The company has been performing together since 2008 and the goal is to create a musical each night purely based on the suggestions of the audience. This means, of course, that no two performances of the company's are the same, which has sparked conspiracy theories amongst sceptical audience members suggesting that they have fifty rehearsed musicals on rotation and such. However, the night I saw it a lady behind me said at the end, "That was so different from last time!" so they obviously don't keep repeating the shows!

So, we sat down not really knowing what to expect. A man came out in the role of a director and asked us different things about that night's musical such as where we thought it should be set and what kind of music should be in it. The audience voted that the show would be called That Sinking Feeling and it would be set in Atlantis with music in the style of Danny Elfman, Puccini, Avenue Q and the Spice Girls. A very eclectic mix that would surely be impossible to base a musical on! He wrote all of these up on a board and then the show began.

At the end of the opening song, I was sitting there absolutely gobsmacked. How on earth had the actors just performed an entire song about Atlantis, complete with harmonies and dancing and no rehearsal? The rest of the show continued in the same way, i.e. with me being completely astounded at how they were pulling it off. It was really funny as well, we could see the musicians sitting at the side laughing as it was obviously their first time seeing this particular performance as well. Speaking of the musicians, they were equally impressive with how they were able to keep up and fit in with the actors' improvised songs; I think you'd have to be a really good musician to be able to do that. It was a little blue in places to perhaps not ideal for small children or easily offended grandparents but great for everyone else! They did a great job at incorporating all of the musical styles we had suggested into the show; I noticed at the end that the director had been ticking them off on the board throughout to make sure they had covered everything.

I was just so impressed with the performance and its very high standard considering that the cast had had absolutely no rehearsal. It was a shame because it was a really small audience the night I went, probably because it's a fringe show and not many people have heard of it. However, if you do get the chance to see it I would definitely recommend it as it makes for a really fun night out.
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