Review: Who won the battle of comedies - Present Laughter (Old Vic) or Noises Off (Lyric Hammersmith)?

London's theatreland is ripe for a good hearty laugh. I mean look at the state of the world, who wouldn't want to bury their head in giggles for a couple of hours?

Present Laughter Old Vic poster

And so we are spoiled by not one but two classic comedies both with stellar casts: Present Laughter starring Andrew Scott and Indira Varma at the Old Vic and Noises Off starring Meera Syal and Daniel Rigby at the Lyric Hammersmith.

But which one is best?

The two plays haven't just got comedy in common, both involve actors playing actors.

Andrew Scott plays Garry Essendine a stage star with his coterie of friends and staff trying to stop him making bad decisions - or are they riding on the coattails of his fame as he believes.

Drama off stage

In Noises Off Meera Syal is one of a troupe of actors touring the regions where the drama offstage threatens to overshadow that on stage.

What the play is most famous for is showing the same scene not only as it appears on stage but also from backstage. You get to see it three times in fact.

Both plays rely on running jokes and a lot of comings and goings, lots of doors, people missing each other and being kept apart.

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Review: Dark Sublime, Trafalgar Studios - laughs and hammy 80s sci-fi but could be slicker

While the play gets off to a punchy start with plenty of laughs it doesn't feel like the focus on relationships, loneliness and the nature of friendship get sufficient purchase. 

Dark Sublime  Trafalgar Studios (credit Scott Rylander) (3) Marina Sirtis and Kwaku Mills
Dark Sublime Trafalgar Studios: Marina Sirtis and Kwaku Mills. Photo: Scott Rylander

There are two actors playing actors on stage in London at the moment and both characters present as needy and vain.

Andrew Scott's Garry in Present Laughter (Old Vic) is at the extreme end of the spectrum but there are elements too in Marina Sirtis' Marianne.

She's an actress whose star has long been in the descendent having reached the heady heights of a 1980s sci-fi series called Dark Sublime and some episodes in a soap.

Now she gets by on the odd bit of radio work and corporate training gigs and spends her evenings drinking and grumbling with old friend Kate (Jacqueline King) when she isn't seeing her new, young girlfriend Suzanne (Sophie Ward).

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Review: Rosmersholm, Duke of York's Theatre - loved the first half, second not so much

Rosmersholm has a lot in it to be admired and for the most part is a powerful, gripping and exposing piece of theatre but it feels let down by the weaknesses of the second half.

Hayley Atwell in Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson.

Written in 1886 Ibsen's play Rosmersholm has themes which resonate today: how can you instigate social and political change and the corrupting power of the media.

At it's heart is Rebecca West (Hayley Atwell) who is trying to affect change and remain independent in a patriarchal society.

She is a long staying guest at the home of John Rosmer whose wife committed suicide a year earlier.

In today's society, she might be called a disruptor, in Ibsen's time, she was a radical who eschewed marriage so as to avoid being defined by her husband. In Rosmer, she sees the seeds of a fellow disruptor.

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Review: Summer Rolls, Park Theatre - tough love viewed through a lens in the first British Vietnamese play

Actress and writer Tuyen Do's first full length play Summer Rolls brings a story about a British Vietnamese family to a UK stage for the first time.

13. Anna Nguyen - Summer Rolls - Photographer: Danté Kim
Anna Nguyen - Summer Rolls, Park Theatre. Photo: Danté Kim

Mother (Linh-Dan Pham) believes hard work and drive will result in success. She is strict with her two children Mai (Anna Nguyen) and Anh (Michael Phong Lee) and her husband (Kwong Loke) doesn't come off lightly either.

Mai is bright and works hard but pushes against the boundaries imposed by her mother.

She enjoys photography and delving beneath the surface of a photo but it makes her realise there is far more to her parents and what they've experienced than they outwardly present.

But, she doesn't know how to talk to them about it until almost too late.

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Interview: Actor & writer Tuyen Do on diverse narratives and having her first full play staged

Tuyen Do is no stranger to the London stage having appeared most recently in The Great Wave at the National Theatre and Pah-Na at the Royal Court but next week she'll be sitting in the audience watching her first full length play Summer Rolls performed at the Park Theatre.

Tuyen Do

I asked her about the play, how she'll be feeling and whether it is getting any easier to stage narratives from a more diverse background.

Tell us a bit about Summer Rolls and where the idea for the play came from.

Summer Rolls is a family drama that spans over 20 years and is seen through the eyes of the youngest daughter Mai as she navigates her dual identity as a second-generation Vietnamese immigrant and comes of age.

She realises very young that her family are nursing deep wounds and secrets. Having escaped from a war-torn country, their individual journeys and memories have left scars that Mai was too young to know. 

Embracing her family’s silence; Mai turns to photography and in capturing ‘essential’ moments finds herself a chronicler of her community’s experiences and an essential catalyst to her family’s healing.

How does it feel to have your first full production and what can audiences expect?

I’m still processing it, and don’t I think I will be able to fully grasp it until I’m sitting amongst the audience, seeing and feeling this play with them.

The play has been so beautifully brought to life by the genius team behind it.

The photography, design, sound and lights have elevated it into so much more than I ever imagined.

Audiences should feel like they are peering into a Vietnamese family home as if they are the walls of the house. A place they’ve never seen before, but will universally connect to through the complicated, joyful and painful family dynamics within it.

They should expect to laugh, cry and be moved by the brilliant performances.

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Jake Gyllenhaal returns to the London stage...and a tale of how Poly just gets me.

You have to understand that I've been a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal's since seeing the film Donnie Darko 18 years ago.

He has appeared on stage in London before but that was back in my non-theatre going days. Hard to believe but they did exist.

I've waited a long time for him to return now that I'm a theatre-goer again. And he is back, in Sunday in the Park With George.

A musical. A musical. I hate musicals. You can read why here, although since writing that post I've realised that I also don't like songs as a form of narrative. I find it difficult to engage with them.

Musicals get under my skin in an irritating way.

Had to leave

I lasted 20 minutes into Hugh Jackman's The Greatest Showman before I had to leave the cinema.

Three songs for Rocketman.

See I do try.

Would I be able to overcome my dislike of musicals for Jake?

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Review: Strange Fruit, Bush Theatre - an exposing and painful play which distracts from its key themes

It is the women that come to the fore and feel like the more interesting and sympathetic characters.

Rakie Ayola as Vivian in 'Strange Fruit' at the Bush Theatre. Photo credit Helen Murray.
Rakie Ayola as Vivian in 'Strange Fruit', Bush Theatre. Photo: Helen Murray.

Caryl Phillips' play Strange Fruit focuses on cultural identity in 1980s Britain.

Vivian (Rakie Ayola) left the Caribbean with her two young sons Errol and Alvin seeking a better life but after 20 years in England, the family finds themselves caught between two cultures.

The grown-up brothers are disaffected and angry. Errol (Jonathan Ajayi) rages at society and that includes his mother and white girlfriend Shelley (Tilly Steele) - which doesn't make for comfortable viewing.

England is riddled with racism and prejudice, neither brother feels welcome or that it is the land of opportunity their mother believes. 

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Review: Little Bulb Theatre's The Future, Battersea Arts Centre - science and rock songs (guess which I liked more?)

The eccentric inventiveness of what Little Bulb has done is thoroughly entertaining.

Little Bulb  The Future at Battersea Arts Centre 2019  PHOTOCREDIT Adam Trigg - www-naturaltheatre-photos Future-006
Little Bulb Theatre: The Future, Battersea Arts Centre 2019. Photo: Adam Trigg

I loved Little Bulb Theatre's last production Orpheus so much I saw it twice, so I was really excited to see their new work The Future.

It projects us into the world of three scientists who, with the help of a compere/conductor/presenter (Clare Beresford), explore super intelligence - AI - and the impact it will have on humanity. 

This being Little Bulb their take is executed with quirkiness, music and song.

The scientists wear tinfoil on their heads and have an idiosyncratic way of talking that manages to be nerdy, dry and humorous all at the same time. Shamira Turner is particularly brilliant in her style of delivery.

Living with super intelligence

AI is represented by a box on a stand - the genie contained - and the play (and it's rock-inflected songs) explore the good and bad of living with super intelligence.

Scenarios and presentations are played out by the scientists in their own quirky style of fun and you find yourself laughing at them just as much as with.

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Review: Woke, Battersea Arts Centre - powerful and atmospheric

Apphia Campbell gives a powerful and engaging performance and the play's message... is firmly nailed to the mast.

Woke New 1 photocredit MIHAELA BODLOVIC
Apphia Campbell, Woke. Photo Mihaela Bodlovic

Woke is an appropriate title for Apphia Campbell's play about what makes an activist and the battle for civil rights and.

She weaves together two stories, set in different time periods, contrasting the Black Panthers with Black Lives Matter to ask how far things have progressed.

First, we meet the naive - 'unwoke' - university fresher Ambrosia whose first semester coincides with the murder of Michael Brown by a white police officer which sparks social unrest near her college campus.

Views challenged

She's been brought up to believe that the law is just and justice will prevail until she meets Trey, the law student who challenges her views and inadvertently introduces her to the realities of the legal system for African Americans.

Then we meet Assata Shakur who, while a member of the Black Liberation Army in the 1970s, was jailed for shooting a police officer despite the prosecution case not having to prove that she actually fired the fatal shots. 

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Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Bridge Theatre - bed hopping and role-swapping

It is a production that ends with an immersive dance and leaves the audience in a party mood but what I liked most was how it steered the narrative away from male dominance.

Midsummer Night's Dream Bridge Theatre poster
Don't leave it to the last minute to get into the auditorium for the Bridge Theatre immersive, promenade production of A Midsummer Night's Dream because there is stuff going on before the play officially starts.

Gwendoline Christie, a statuesque Amazon Queen, is encased in a glass box in a riff on the idea of a golden cage. She is dressed in a nun-like habit while a choir, similarly attired, sing to her.

When the opening 'marriage or death' scene plays out, it is austere with the cold and unfeeling Theseus (Oliver Chris) and Egeus (Kevin McMonagle) appearing all the more domineering towards the petite, girlish Hermia (Isis Hainsworth). 

Hippolyta places her hand on the glass in a gesture of support towards Hermia.

Hint of a twist

It hints at a twist that is to come, one that sees director Nicholas Hytner not merely gender swapping to redress the balance but swapping a whole storyline. But I'll come onto that.

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