Review: The Whale at the Ustinov Studio

Original review: Underdog Reviews

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An odyssey to the very depths of love, loss, and faith

No man is an island, but many a man is marooned on one. Charlie’s island is his couch in Idaho, just about buoyant on a sea of abandoned bottles, and with little more than a laptop to save him from total isolation. With his work and relationships folding under his vast and ever-rising weight, Samuel D. Hunter’s The Whale is an odyssey to the very depths of love, loss, and faith.

A titanic, two-hour text with no interval, it’s one that’s alive with intertextuality and intellect. Revelatory in its palpable realism and its revealing plotting, it’s a play that never feels like it’s force-feeding us information from the past, but rather lets it unfold naturally as four visitors – loved ones and lost ones – pass through his living room. Everything bar the undulating waves in the intervening blackouts in Laurence Boswell’s production at Bath’s Ustinov Studio is naturalistic, from Tim Shortall’s dilapidated but detailed apartment set to the perspiration on Charlie’s brow under his ample padding, but those waves allow other whales, of the more emblematic breed, from Melville’s leviathans to the Bible’s behemoths, to bask below the dramatic tide.

The literary – but literal – whales swimming past make the play’s title tough to swallow: Continue reading “Review: The Whale at the Ustinov Studio”

Review: Kit Monkman’s Macbeth

Original review: Culturefly

Kit Monkman's Macbeth

Ambitious, bloody drama danced on a singularly psychological stage

Along with elegant poetry, gripping prose, and the grounds on which to found great performances, the freedom of adaptation is one of the greatest gifts in Shakespeare’s plays. An adept adaptor, the Bard worked historical chronicles and the King’s writings on Daemonologie into one of his bloodiest and bleakest works, but Macbeth is rich in dramatic ambition. With witches, wars, and natural order overturned, it invites new interpretation of what drives a worthy thane to kill a king – witches, his wife, free will? – and director Kit Monkman’s production is an experiment not only in motive, but filmic form.

‘Nothing is but what is not’ notes the newly crowned Thane of Cawdor as the prophecy that has also promised him kinghood takes hold, and Monkman has taken this as his muse. For Macbeth, the unbelievable is to be believed, and for Monkman, the unimaginable is to be imagined. Continue reading “Review: Kit Monkman’s Macbeth”

Review: Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre

Original review: The Reviews Hub

Northern Ballet's Jane Eyre

Brontë and ballet in balance

Balancing Brontë and ballet is brave: poised between prose and pas, pathetic fallacy and precise footwork, narrative voice and choreographic action, Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre is a bildungsroman of a ballet that’s as brave, and beautiful, as Brontë’s novel.

Following the ‘poor, obscure, plain and little’ Jane through her life, from unloved orphan to adored and independent wife, Cathy Marsten’s choreographic voice is as distinct as her character. With all the foundations of classical dance, there’s a freedom of form that echoes the ‘independent will’ of our proto-feminist protagonist: flexed feet, développés that unfold and then re-furl, floor work, and women dancing on flat as well as en pointe. The effect is a choreographic language that, like Philip Feeney’s evocative and affecting score, feels classical, lyrical, and full of character. Continue reading “Review: Northern Ballet’s Jane Eyre”

Review: A View From the Bridge at Tobacco Factory Theatre

A View From the Bridge

Blistering and visceral and abrasive: it burns and then it blows

Blistering and visceral and abrasive, A View From the Bridge at Bristol’s Tobacco Factory Theatre is a virtuosic version of this violent tale about betrayal, visas, and virility. A Greek tragedy that, like its protagonist, gets going gently but grows angrier as the time passes, the play is as pertinent and provocative now as ever, and in an interpretation as great as this, the text glows perceptively, and then ignites with gutting power.

New York, New York: a place for opportunity and escape, now and in the fifties, where Arthur Miller’s play finds its feet. This is Brooklyn, urban and buzzing with grinding background noise from Max Pappenheim, Anisha Fields’s gritty, barebones set that’s built-up and knocked-about from the beginning, and a busy neighbourhood bulked out with the general public. This is Miller’s milieu, a multi-cultural community where masculinity is king and character is not to be compromised; merciless but mercurial, it takes only two Italian immigrants to crack it. Welcomed into the world of Eddie, his beloved, daughter-like ward Catherine and his warm but critically aware wife Beatrice, director Mike Tweddle winds the tension like wool around a spool, the action well-contained in Matthew Graham’s stark-and-stilly lit spaces until it spills out in the last, destructive acts.

From the Bard’s Macbeth to Miller’s Bridge, the Factory Company are fantastic: Continue reading “Review: A View From the Bridge at Tobacco Factory Theatre”

Review: Beautiful – the Carole King Musical UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

Beautiful the Carole King Musical

Beautiful jukebox biomusical

Beautiful is a jukebox biomusical: from Brooklyn to 1650 Broadway to Billboard, it charts the charming Carole King’s musical, and romantic, relationships and eventual meteoric rise to fame after finally finding her voice.

The musical is less about King’s life than it is her music and lyrics, but so rich and so resonant are their sound that it’s a moving and lively listen in its own right. This tuneful Tapestry is complimented by a plot that revolves mostly around her creatively fruitful but romantically fruitless relationship with lyricist Gerry Goffin, although, as the tattered piano at the centre of the free-roving set proves, this is more about the music than its makers. Continue reading “Review: Beautiful – the Carole King Musical UK Tour”

Review: Agnes Colander at the Ustinov Studio

Original review: BroadwayWorldUK

Agnes Colander at Ustinov

Engaging and enlightening

‘Only by forgetting all we’ve ever learned can we learn to live at all’: wise words from a work that was itself, forgotten. Lost to the British Library and brought to life over 100 years later, Harley Granville Barker’s Agnes Colander is an engaging and enlightening look at womanhood and liberation in early 1900s England from one of the Edwardian era’s greatest writers. 

Agnes is an artist living alone, a dangerous portrait of independence in a gallery of decorum. Directed for every detail by theatrical deity Trevor Nunn in the Ustinov Studio, the most intimate and diminutive of theatres, it feels more like sitting in on the seclusions of film set than seeing a play, so evocative are Rob Jones’s designs, Fergus O’Hare’s sound, and Paul Pyant’s ever-darkening lighting, and so privileged and privy is our view to the intimacies of one woman’s determinations and self-discovery. Sometimes, it feels like we’re seeing something before the final edit, and, fittingly, we are: Continue reading “Review: Agnes Colander at the Ustinov Studio”

Review: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

Original review: Underdog Reviews

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Matthew Bourne has an absolute ball with Cinderella

Matthew Bourne, master of the classical ballet reimagining, has an absolute ball with Cinderella. The archetypal rags-to-riches tale is richly and wittily transformed into a wartime romance with Prokofiev’s euphonious score, Lez Brotherston’s beautiful forties-feeling costumes and cinematic sets, and choreography that captures the glitz, glamour, and gloom of a Blitz-bound fairy tale.

The charm of this Cinderella is in the transformation: an unloved Cinders is whisked away to a ball, but it’s in a rocking café, not a royal castle, underneath the war-torn streets of a bombed-out London, and it’s a pilot, not a prince, she falls in love with. At the ball they dance jazz and jitterbugs as well as waltz, and it’s a fairy godfather in a white silk suit that whisks Cinderella away in a sidecar. As Cinderella, Ashley Shaw’s playful pas de deux with a dummy – in place of dancing with her broom in the ballet – is delightful, and her dream, and dummy, blossom into life as Dominic North’s dashing pilot in an inspired act to introduce the prince before the ball.

The setting for the ball is based on a real-life cabaret bombing during the Blitz Continue reading “Review: Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella”

Review: Cilla the Musical UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

Cilla the Musical

A celebration of Cilla Black

‘Something tells me something’s gonna happen tonight’, sings Cilla at the show’s finale, and at the Hippodrome, after a lighting fault and show-halt as two in the audience were taken ill, it’s a line that suddenly felt very close to home. Once resumed, the songs and spirit of Cilla save the evening, but oversimplify the story of a star that deserves so much more.

Based on the TV series, Cilla is a celebration of Cilla Black. Set in, and with a soundtrack from, the sixties, it follows the teenage Priscilla White’s transformation into the chart-topping Cilla Black with a touching tribute to her talent and charm. Kara Lily Hayworth is warm and witty as the Liverpudlian lovely, and her performances of the Cilla classics ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart’, ‘Alfie’, and ‘Something Tells Me’ are perfectly poised between powerful performance and heartfelt homage.

Though it works for Cilla, elsewhere the impressive musical performances feel more like tribute acts and cameos than fully-formed characters in a well-plotted chronicle. Continue reading “Review: Cilla the Musical UK Tour”

Review: The Cherry Orchard at Bristol Old Vic

Original review: Underdog Reviews

The Cherry Orchard


Cherry-picked for the Year of Change

‘How much these walls have seen,’ muses the lady Lyuba in a fond but forlorn farewell to her family home; and, as her hand touches the gorgeous green and gilded walls of the Old Vic, her words touch our hearts, too. The Cherry Orchard, Chekhov’s so-called comedy about social change in turn-of-the-century Russia following the serf reform, seems cherry-picked for Bristol Old Vic at this time of redevelopment, in their very own Year of Change.

Tom Piper’s invigorating set envelops the Old Vic into the estate that’s up for sale: the architecture is the orchard, we the trees, and, with an audience also onstage in an uncanny recreation of the auditorium, the action plays out in-the-round and uses every inch of the space, from the stairs up to the pit to the passages behind the stalls. As such, we are in the estate: Continue reading “Review: The Cherry Orchard at Bristol Old Vic”

Review: Hairspray UK Tour

Original review: Underdog Reviews

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Feels fun but falls flat

‘What gives a girl power and punch? Is it charm? Is it poise? No, it’s hairspray!’ This Hairspray has plenty of punch from its performances, but is light on the power and poise and falls, well, a little flat.

Tracy Turnblad is a ‘big’ girl with some big dreams – to dance, and get out of detention – and her gritty, if ditsy, determination to do so is set against the backdrop of segregation and discrimination in sixties Baltimore. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s score has moments of luminous amusement, from the shouts and shakes of showstopper ‘Run and Tell That’, to the body-and-black-positive belter ‘Big, Blonde, and Beautiful’, to the bold exuberance of the show’s close, ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’. All this is fun, but the musical force is in its protest anthem, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, that reflects its politics, and it’s a powerhouse performance from Brenda Edwards’s respected, motherly Motormouth Maybelle that ends triumphantly with all hand-in-hand.

Yet, the force of Hairspray is blunted by its own flashy brashness, and the focus feels as though it’s on all the wrong colours: Continue reading “Review: Hairspray UK Tour”