Review: Force Majeure, Donmar Warehouse - laughs, oddness and is the staging right for the space?

The Donmar Warehouse's stage has been converted into a French ski resort for Force Majeure. There is a mountain backdrop, in the middle of which are lift doors and a 'snowy' slope that tilts downwards towards the centre of the stalls.

Force Majeure poster
Force Majeure, Donmar Warehouse 2021/22

It's ski-able as some of the cast demonstrate, swooshing from one back corner, down the slope and through the audience. It's an impressive bit of staging, but it comes at a cost.

Adapted by Tim Price from Ruben Ostlund's film, Force Majeure follows a Swedish family on holiday. The father, Tomas (Rory Kinnear), is a workaholic, and his put-upon wife Ebba (Lynsey Marshal) is determined to keep him off his phone and focused on family time.

Meanwhile, their two children are glued to screens ignoring their parents and are indignant when they do get asked to do something. It is a familiar dynamic, but an incident on the slopes threatens family and relationship bonds.

It's an incident that forces them to face some hard and ugly truths. 

Nordic humour

I haven't seen the film, but there are shades of Scandi humour in the play. There are also laughs that come from the easily recognised behaviour - the plays keen observation is one of its strengths.

However, sometimes jokes are overused and become laboured. It occasionally slips into farce, and the humour doesn't always gel with the more serious, contemplative moments. At times the play feels at odds with itself.

And then there is the staging and the skiing. On the one hand, it is quite cool to see people skiing in a theatre and does bring the ski resort to life. But on the other, if you're sitting in the wrong seats, you will get a limited view of what is going on.

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Review: Peggy For You, Hampstead Theatre - an entertaining snapshot of a theatre star

Peggy Ramsay (Tamsin Greig) is a play agent, but she is more famous than the playwrights and the work that she represents. Written by Alan Plater, a client of the real Peggy, the play is set in her office in the late 1960s and covers a day in her life.

Peggy For You Production Image 4 featuring TAMSIN GREIG © Helen Maybanks
Peggy For You, Hampstead Theatre 2021 starring Tamsin Greig. Photo © Helen Maybanks

It opens with Peggy reposed on a chaise lounge, reading play scripts. As she reads them, she makes a series of phone calls through which we learn it is early morning, and she's been up all night bailing out one of her clients who has had a brush with the law.

We also learn that Peggy has little regard for the hour and the disturbance that her early calls cause.

As the day progresses, there's the arrival of a promising young playwright Simon (Josh Finan), who, when told what he has written isn't a play, asks: 'What is a play?' It becomes a running theme as Peggy asks various clients for their answers.

Then there is her golden boy playwright, Philip (Jos Vantyler), who arrives announcing that he is getting married, much to Peggy's chagrin - she believes it will kill his creativity. And a disgruntled ex-golden boy Henry (Trevor Fox) visits to tell Peggy he is tired of her interference.

To add to the office bustle, the phone regularly rings. Her secretary Tessa (Danusia Samal), handles calls and other demands, like buying an atlas so Peggy can see where two Yorkshire based playwrights live.

Peggy For You is a character piece where the activity is designed to show who Peggy was and how she was rather than taking her on a journey.

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Review: Fair Play, Bush Theatre

Fair Play at the Bush Theatre is set in the world of female athletics. Ann (NicK King) joins a running club and meets Sophie (Charlotte Beaumont), and the two bond over their love of running, drive and ambition to compete at the highest level. 

L-r NicK King and Charlotte Beaumont in 'Fair Play' at Bush Theatre. Photo credit Ali Wright-2
L-r NicK King and Charlotte Beaumont in 'Fair Play' at Bush Theatre. Photo credit: Ali Wright

It is simply staged with the lines of a running track marked out and a couple of scaffolding frames. The dialogue weaves around their training regime, the warm-ups, practice races and competitions. 

There is banter, encouragement, anger at bad performances and revelations about the sacrifices the two make and the impact training at such a high level has on their bodies.

With snatches of races imaginatively performed, the stop-start pace creates bursts of energy like that which goes into the runs. It envelops you into the landscape of serious athletics.

And so the first half jogs, and it is fun and interesting, but after a while, it starts to feel like it is circling as Ann and Sophie circle the running track. I did wonder if it was leading anywhere.

In the second half, the circle is broken. Just as the two are competing on the world stage, Ann's ambitions for reaching the Olympics are shattered - and the friendship tested. 

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Review: Manor, National Theatre - unsatisfying hodgepodge

As the stage was plunged into darkness at the end of Manor on the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage, I was thinking: What was the point?  

The applause died down and the actors left the stage, I turned to my friend who said what I was thinking before I had the chance.

National Theatre at night
Manor is on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre

Manor is an odd play and one that will divide given the mixed response from those sitting around us.

Set in a crumbling restoration-era manor house, on a stormy day with floodwaters rising, Lady Diana Stuckley (Nancy Carroll) is arguing with her husband Pete (Owen McDonnell).

He's off his tits on drugs (to put it bluntly), but the row whiffs of a marriage long past its sell-by date.

When daughter Isis (Liádan Dunlea) appears, there is no cessation of hostilities, and the mood doesn't get any better when strangers start arriving seeking shelter from the storm.

There's Ripley (Michele Austin), a nurse training to be a doctor and moody teenage daughter (Dora) Shaniqua Okwok, who were staying at a nearby holiday cottage.

And the charismatic-as-a-snake, Ted Farrier (Shaun Evans), who is the leader of a far-right group, accompanied by his blind girlfriend Amy (Ruth Forrest) and loyal recruit Anton (Peter Bray) in tow.

Local vicar Fiske (David Hargreaves) and unemployed youth Perry (Edward Judge), who lives in a caravan nearby, make up the group.

Remind you of something?

The set-up immediately reminded me of The Mousetrap, but while Manor is described as darkly comic on the National Theatre website, there isn't a great deal to laugh at unless you find fat-shaming funny.

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Review: Rare Earth Mettle, Royal Court Theatre - humour carries this meaty play

Al Smith's new play Rare Earth Mettle at the Royal Court is a meaty piece that covers a lot of ground, ironic considering the central premise is about the fight for control over one piece of land.

Rare Earth Metal

In Bolivia, Kimsa (Carlo Albán) scratches a living showing tourists around the remnants of colonial silver mines, including a British train, but the land he lives on is rich in the rare and valuable mineral lithium.

Billionaire Henry Finn (Arthur Darvill) wants to buy the land to mine the lithium for batteries for his new range of electric cars. Anna (Genevieve O'Reilly) is a doctor who wants the lithium because research tentatively shows that lithium helps improve mental health.

And Nayra (Jaye Griffiths) wants to use it for political (and financial) gain.

On the surface, there is something inherently good about all their motives - green cars, better health and a leader who wants to make life better for indigenous people.

Tarnished motives

But as the play unfolds, those motives are increasingly tarnished by the devious, corrupt and illegal means they'll go to reach their end goals.

If the play was focused purely on the debate over good motives badly executed, it would make for a really interesting and provocative play, particularly given the sharp wit and humour that weaves through it - more of that in a moment.

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Review: 'Night, Mother, Hampstead Theatre - drama without drama

There's a moment right at the end of 'Night, Mother which tugged on my heartstrings and that surprised me.

The play is set in rural America, where a mother (Stockard Channing) and daughter Jessie (Rebecca Night), who has epilepsy, live together. It's quickly apparent that Jessie is the household organiser, making sure her mother has enough of her favourite sweets and biscuits.

Stockard Channing and  Rebecca Night. Photography by Marc Brenner.
Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night in 'Night, Mother, Hampstead Theatre 2021. Photography by Marc Brenner.

In some ways it reminded me of the premise for Martin McDonagh's The Beauty Queen of Leenane which, coincidentally, I saw earlier in the week at the Lyric Hammersmith, except this relationship has far less hatred and vitriol.

Just what their relationship is, like Beauty Queen, is slowly revealed, but in Marsha Norma's play, it's through the lens of a limited time frame. Very early in the play, Jessie tells her mother she is going to kill herself that evening.

Despite the fact that this will be their last evening together, there is a sort of calm activity.  Mother and daughter talk about the 'why', going over the past, but all the time Jessie is organising and tidying.

There is a confident and steady control about everything she does, but we've not seen her before tonight, so there is nothing to compare her behaviour to; instead, we rely on what she tells us about her feelings. 

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Review: The Mousetrap, St Martin's Theatre - frothy, fun entertainment

Are you allowed to call yourself a theatre fan if you haven't seen The Mousetrap, the West End's longest-running play? Possibly. But I've ticked that box now.

The Mousetrap sign
Photo by Rev Stan

So what was it like? Well, it's a fun, frothy West End play that is in part carried by its status of being long-running and a West End institution.

It's an Agatha Christie, which means everyone acts in a way that puts them under suspicion.

And I don't know if you are like me, but thoughts about characters always cross my mind early on, which I then put to one side but inevitable prove true.

Of course, I never verbalise my suspicions in the interval, so can't prove that I was kinda on the right track. But I was, so there. Not that I guessed everything because I didn't.

There are some nice little twists, as you'd expect from Christie.

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Review: The Normal Heart, National Theatre - from anger to heart-wrenching

The Normal Heart is a play of fights. Set in the early 80s, in New York, gay men are dying, but gay activist Ned Weeks (Ben Daniels) is struggling to get anyone to do anything.

Only Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr), who is trying to treat the increasing numbers of sick men, shares his concern and sense of urgency. 

 

The Normal Heart pre performance National Theatre
The Normal Heart is staged in the round at the National Theatre. Photo: Rev Stan

 

While Ned and Dr Brookner agree something needs to be done, they don't see eye to eye on what and how.

As the death toll rises in New York and beyond, Ned gathers a growing group of volunteers to raise awareness among the gay community and campaign to get funding and support from the authorities.

Ned's approach is to be direct, to shout and stamp, but others prefer a softer, more diplomatic tone; there is more at stake than losing lovers and friends.

Fight for recognition

This isn't just a fight for life, it's a fight to smash stereotypes. It's a fight for the recognition of a community and the right to be out and proud - or not - without prejudice.

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Review: Is God Is, Royal Court Theatre - superb quirky, dark revenge comedy

Two actors on stage describe their characters as if the direction in the playtext is part of the script. It is the first of many quirks in Aleshea Harris' dark revenge comedy Is God Is.

Is God Is-15-09-21-Royal Court-1214
(l-r) Adelayo Adedayo and Tamara Lawrence in Is God Is, Royal Court. Photo Tristram Kenton

Twin sisters Racine (Tamara Lawrence) and Anaia (Adelayo Adedayo) receive a letter from their mother (Cecilia Noble), whom they thought was dead.

When they visit her, she tells them her dying wish is that she is avenged for a horrific past crime, and so the two set off from the "Dirty South" to California armed with just a name and a determination to carry out their mother's deadly wishes.

Dressed differently by their mother as young children so she could tell them apart, Racine is the natural leader, often protecting her more 'emotional' sister Anaia. But their mission proves revealing both about their family, their mother's past and themselves.

Is God Is-15-09-21-Royal Court-80
(l-r) Adelayo Adedayo,  Ray Emmett Brown, Tamara Lawrence in Is God Is, Royal Court. Photo Tristram Kenton

The brutality that fuels and defines the narrative is played out against incongruous sets of candy-coloured houses, cartoon-like props and sound effects. There are backdrops that would look at home in a spaghetti western and signs in different styles that announce each scene.

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Review: Camp Siegfried, Old Vic Theatre - teen romance and radicalisation

Camp Siegfried is more than a German-themed summer camp for German Americans in 1938 Long Island; alongside all the usual fun activities, Nazi doctrines are openly pedalled.

Old Vic Camp Siegfried
Camp Siegfried, Old Vic, Sept 2021. Photo: Rev Stan

The camp is based on a real Camp Siegfried, which operated in the 1930s and included flower beds in the shape of swastikas.

Bess Wohl's play sets the innocence of a teen romance against a backdrop of fascist grooming.

Our teenagers, played by Patsy Ferran and Luke Thallon, are in the process of finding out who they are and what they want out of life. They are impressionable but without realising it. 

Thallon's Him is 17 and already fully immersed in the camp and its values, having visited several times before. He spots Ferran's Her, a shy 16-year old and makes a bee-line towards her.

It's her first camp, she's there with an Aunt and not finding it easy. The marching bands are loud, she doesn't like dancing and is no good at sports or anything outdoorsy.

Romance is encouraged

As the two hang out together more and more, we learn of how 'romance' is encouraged to further the Nazi cause and, through camp gossip, how the reality is often inexperienced fumblings and embarrassment, not the great love and conquest most anticipate. 

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