Review: The Elephant Song, Park Theatre - twists, turns and the unexpected

The Elephant Song credit Giacomo Giannelli
Jon Osbaldeston, Louise Faulkner and Gwithian Evans in The Elephant Song, Park Theatre, Jan 2023. Photo: Giacomo Giannelli


Michael Aleen (Gwithian Evans) is a resident at a secure mental hospital obsessed with elephants. He also seems to hold the key to understanding the disappearance of one of the psychiatrists, but can the hospital director Dr Greenberg (Jon Osbaldeston), believe what he says?

Nicolas Billon's The Elephant song takes us through a game of cat and mouse as Dr Greenberg tries to talk Michael into revealing the information he has.

Michael, with his toy elephant always in his hand, knows the information he has might give him some leverage. He wants to leave the hospital. 

Nurse Peterson (Louise Faulkner) warns Greenberg that Michael is manipulative. And Michael is, using his keen, sometimes cruel, observation and sharp intelligence to his best advantage.

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Review: No One, Omnibus Theatre - fun and lively physical theatre with superb fight scenes

 

No One Omnibus Theatre jan 2023
No One, Omnibus Theatre, Jan 2023


No One at the Omnibus Theatre bursts onto the stage with a scene in a club, complete with a live DJ, which quickly descends into a fight. Then we jump to a police station and investigation into a missing girl and the violent attack of a man.

 

It sounds dark, but how it is performed brings a humourous touch.

The policeman, with a strong West Country accent, listening to a drug-fuelled, seemingly odd and improbable explanation of what happened has hints of Edgar Wright's Hot Fuzz.

The mystery behind the attack, the missing girl and the odd occurrences then steadily unfolds. It is logical and simultaneously illogical, which is part of the fun.

Based thematically on HG Wells's The Invisible Man, the piece has been devised by Akimbo Theatre who trained in physical theatre at Jacque Lecoq, Paris. And they put that training to good use.

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Review: Hamlet, Southwark Playhouse: Slimmed down version has lost context and depth

Hamlet Southwark Playhouse Jan 2023
Hamlet poster, Southwark Playhouse, Jan 2023

This slimmed-down production of Hamlet by Lazarus Theatre Company at the Southwark Playhouse clocks in at just 95 minutes. It focuses primarily on the younger characters - Hamlet, Horatio, Laertes, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

The story is framed as a sort of therapy session, there is a circle of chairs, and a voice over a tannoy proclaims it is a 'safe space'. The tannoy is a device used for the 'adults' communicating throughout the play - on the few occasions they feature.

I'm definitely not a Shakespeare purist, I  like the idea of trimmed-down Shakespeare. There are chunks of his plays that were appropriate for the time they were written that can be easily cut for modern audiences without impact on the story.

Too many cuts

But too much has been removed in this production. If you aren't familiar with the story, I'm not sure you'd get much from it.

It's a play I've seen plenty of times (and studied), so I could easily fill in the gaps. What was lost for me was the context, the layers and the nuance.

If you never see Hamlet (Michael Hawkey) interacting with Claudius and Gertrude or see the adults plotting and manipulating, you lose part of what is driving him and what he is up against. You miss the politics of family and succession. 

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Review: The Manny, King's Head Theatre - laugh out loud funny and honest observations

Sam McArdle in the Manny  Credit - Gabriel Bush
Sam McArdle in the Manny, King's Head Theatre, Jan 2023. Photo: Gabriel Bush

Sam McArdle plays 'the manny', a male nanny working for rich, single women in West London. He is a charmer, charming his employers, his charges and the women on dating apps he wants to sleep with. But 'living the life' isn't all it's cracked up to be.

In a solo performance, McArdle weaves the narrative, switching between scenes in his working life and social life. 

He lands a mostly cushy job except for difficult-to-charm 7-year-old Michael. McArdle has a witty take on child care and amusing observations of the children of the rich, presumably gleaned from his time working as a male nanny.

His fictional Manny uses his own brand of charm to win over parents and other mums at the school gates.

Outside of work, casual sex takes a back seat when, bored and lonely one day, he ends up at a community improv class and falls for teacher Molly, an out-of-work actress.

Molly is in a relationship and doesn't fall for his charms, but he is smitten. He starts to feel deeper human connections and a sense of community, there is encouragement and support in the group, both of which have been absent from his own circle of friends.

But not everything works out the way he wants.

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Review: The Art of Illusion, Hampstead Theatre (Downstairs) - the magic doesn't always translate

The Art of Illusion won several awards when it opened in Paris in 2014. Now it gets its London premiere at the Hampstead Theatre but will this play about magic and illusion conjure up some English awards?

Martin Hyder  Kwaku Mills  Norah Lopez-Holden & Rina Fatania in The Art of Illusion_credit Robert Day smll
Martin Hyder, Kwaku Mills, Norah Lopez-Holden & Rina Fatania in The Art of Illusion, Hampstead Theatre Jan 2023. Photo: Robert Day

It is a play with two timelines. In 1984 a man named December (Brian Martin) meets a woman named April (Bettrys Jones) in a cafe to return her bag, which he 'found'.

He tells her how he was obsessed with magic as a child and the famous 19th Century illusionist Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin. They set out to find what would have been Houdin's basement theatre.

Then in the second timeline, we follow the story of Houdin's life, career and what followed at his theatre. 

We switch between the stories at an increasingly rapid pace all the time with unsubtle reminders about illusion and reality. But there are also questions about chance and fate. The coincidence of December and April meeting and both being named after months is just the tip of a very big iceberg.

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Video: 60-second theatre review bloopers 2022

I really enjoy making my 60-second video reviews, but it doesn't always go smoothly. One-take recordings are quite rare.

Sometimes I need a few takes to get my thoughts straight; sometimes, I mix up my words, forget what I want to say or am just incoherent. Here's a little compilation of some of my cock-ups. Enjoy.

Subscribe to my YouTube channel to see all my 60-second reviews, and/or follow me on Instagram (I also post them there).

Happy New Year.


Theatre best of: Stan's top 10 plays 0f 2022

Best of theatre 2022
This feels like a moment; I haven't been able to do a best-of theatre list since 2019 because of 'you know what'. It's been huge fun revisiting the plays I've seen - nearly 50. And while that total is down on pre-pandemic levels, it was still tricky to narrow down my choices, but here goes.

1. The Collaboration, Young Vic

Synopsis in a sentence: Andy Warhol's star is waning, and young artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's star is rising; they have nothing in common but are persuaded to collaborate.

From my review: "I was gripped in the presence of two great artists and gripped by their stories. I laughed, I gasped, I cried, and if I felt compelled to tap my toes at the start, by the end, I was on my feet, and that's something I rarely do."

The play is now on Broadway, and look out for a film version (an actual film, not a filmed stage version).

2. Henry V, Donmar Warehouse

Synopsis in a sentence: The wayward Prince becomes King and has to prove himself to his country and foreign powers.

Not going to lie, Kit Harington surprised me with his performance in this.

From my review: "This is a powerful production of Henry V. Harington's nuanced, often quiet and considered Henry V perfectly highlights the complexity and often contradictory nature of the character and the role of leadership.

3. The Human Voice, Harold Pinter Theatre

Synopsis in a sentence: A woman has a final phone call with her lover, who is getting married the next day.

From my review: "It hasn't gone down well with all the critics, but I thought it was mesmerising and gripping. Hats off to Ruth Wilson."

4. Ministry of Lesbian Affairs, Soho Theatre

Synopsis in a sentence: A lesbian choir get a coveted spot on the main stage at Pride, mainly because they are the only lesbian choir to apply.

From my review: "It is a funny, interesting and occasionally challenging play that had me walking out of the theatre with a big grin on my face. And that is a big win."

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Review: Patsy Ferran and Paul Mescal in A Streetcar Named Desire, Almeida Theatre

Streetcar Named Desire Almeida Theatre Dec 2022 running times

The Almeida's production of A Streetcar Named Desire quickly sold out, presumably helped by the casting of Paul Mescal as Stanley. But the play's drama started before it opened:  A few days before previews began, its Blanche - Lydia Wilson - had to pull out.

Olivier-winner* Patsy Ferran stepped into the breach taking on the lead role, the first week of performances was cancelled to give her some rehearsal time, and the press night was pushed back to January (yes, this performance was an unintended preview).

While it wasn't referenced that Ferran would have a script with her in the stage manager's brief pre-performance speech, she had a black, hardbacked notebook with her throughout. However, it didn't really register for a long time until she seamlessly opened it, glanced at a page and then closed it again without missing a beat.

Seamless performance

In fact, I hardly noticed her looking at it; it was held like a prop as if it was dear possession, an item of comfort that Blanche clings to. And it was the only slight hint of having had so little time to prepare. She was that good.

The other unexpectedly great performance was director Rebecca Frecknall, who stood in to play Eunice.

Pushing last-minute substitutions to one side, this production is a very different beast from others I've seen. For a start, Ferran's Blanche is so fragile. You really get the sense of this being someone who is damaged, rendered delicate with frayed nerves. 

Hers is a sweet charm, an almost innocent flirtation which she can turn on almost like a reflex rather than a more overt sexiness of other portrayals. Her behaviour feels like her protective casing from years of trying to numb past trauma.

Menacing performance from Mescal

I feared for her before the brute that is Stanley had even stepped on stage. And Mescal's Stanley is menacing. Previously only having seen him play very gentle and quiet characters; it was great to watch.

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Review: Emma Corrin in Orlando, Garrick Theatre

 

Orlando Garrick Theatre Dec 2022
Orlando, starring Emma Corrin, Garrick Theatre, Dec 2022

 

Twice during Orlando at the Garrick Theatre, Emma Corrin says 'gosh' and to my ear, it was her Princess Diana in The Crown saying it. I'm hoping it was intentional as it would fit with the contemporary references which are peppered throughout Neil Bartlett's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel.

Some of it is subtle, some less so, but it's part of what makes this a fun and playful production of a story with serious themes.

Corrin plays the eponymous Orlando, sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, whose story spans from the 16th century to the second world war, all the time remaining in their 20s or 30s.  

They are a character that is forever searching: Who am I? But in essence, it's a search for the freedom to be themselves, to express who they are and openly love who they love.

There is a chorus of 'Virginias', all dourly dressed, who step in to play additional characters. The casting is ethnicity and gender-blind, something that wouldn't normally raise an eyebrow, but here it feels particularly smart; the fluidity of gender and roles in the context of the story nails the point.

Clothes as labels

As Orlando passes through the centuries, they work their way through a dizzying array of costumes, but these become symbolic of society's labels and expectations of binary genders.

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Review: Giles Terera in Othello, National Theatre

The National Theatre's Lyttelton stage has been transformed with steps and terraces around the performance space, creating a look that is a cross between an ancient greek theatre and a fighting pit.

Othello National Theatre Nov 2022
Othello, National Theatre, Nov 2022

Before the play starts, images of past productions of Othello and the year they were performed are projected onto the steps and back wall as a reminder of the story's timelessness.

When the play begins an angry mob confronts Othello (Giles Terera) about his marriage to Desdemona (Rosy McEwan), and one of them holds a rope tied into a noose. It's a startling reminder of the lynch mobs of the not-too-distant past.

The production is consciously white, with Terera the only person of colour in the cast. It serves to emphasise the racism and jealousy that fuels the tragedy and Othello's isolation.

A sort of chorus - called 'system' on the cast list - is almost permanently present on stage, either seated or standing on the steps. They are like the personification of an infection, the sickness of emotions that grows in Othello's mind synchronising their jagged and exaggerated movements.

And there is something that is part creepy, part peaceful in how they gather and sit with Othello as he dies. 

Paul Hilton's Iago is played with the chill and wit of a good comic book villain. The system moves and are animated by what he says and does; sometimes, there is something grotesquely comic in how they respond.

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