Category Archives: Theatre

Dr Faustus Review

PERFORMING: 18 June to 2 October

VENUE: The Globe

A play dealing with devils, angels, and an assortment of supernatural phenomena, is not normally the easiest piece of theatre to stage, but Doctor Faustus, with Matthew Dunster in the director chair, is a wonderful combination of spectacle and drama.

Dunster clearly has a firm understanding of Doctor Faustus. The comedy is appropriately funny and emotion is well judged. The so-called low characters of Wagner (Felix Scott), Dick (Richard Clews) and Robin (Pearce Quigley) are balanced well with the high bravado of Dr. Faustus (Paul Hilton) and Mephistopheles (Arthur Darvill).

The comedy in particularly is well emphasised and impressively incorporated into the play. The slapstick horseplay between Robin and Dick with all its sexual undertones and raunchy jokes creates some laugh out loud moments. Wagner chips in with his own banter, cleverly satirising the scholars and employing sarcasm with ease. A few added jokes in modern English make the comedy more accessible livening up Marlowe’s otherwise hit and miss clowns. The scenes of low vulgarity do well to mirror Faustus’ decline into his own type of party clown and it is eventually the great doctor himself who gets involved in the slapstick jest.

Hilton’s acting diversity is put to the test and he rises to the challenge veering from lowly trickster to a man suffering an internal struggle. The manifestation of good and evil through the samurai clad angels adds physical show to a mental battle. All of the many extensive monologues in Marlowe’s text are dealt with masterfully. Hilton portrays a Faustus wanting redemption but knowing it is useful, with a sense that the will to repent is absent. Complex and ambivalent, Hilton’s Faustus is a delight to watch.

His partner in crime Mephistopheles also deserves two thumbs up. Darvill is equally complicit in the jesting, but ready to let loose a violent energy in threatening to tear Faustus to shreds or drag him to the fiery depths of hell. Mephistopheles’s own regret about being thrown from heaven after tasting its delights is explored, even if for a small moment, but it is a welcome idea indeed.

Separately they are strong, and together they are unstoppable. Darvill and Hilton have fantastic stage chemistry and show the very intricate relationship between Mephistopheles and Faustus that ranges from practical jokes, to the threat of a violent death. It is a joy to watch and drives the play forward since they star in many of the scenes.

The whole cast come together in a fluid piece of theatre that flows as freely as Faustus’s blood. Dancing scholars that look like Renaissance versions of secret agents made scene changes clean. The Seven Deadly Sins work together well to act as a warning to Faustus, one that he does not heed to. Not even a fat and farting Covetousness and a demented Wrath change his mind. The use of an ensemble means that otherwise difficult scenes to stage such as showing the solar system became effortless, smooth and successful.

The clock strikes midnight and Faustus gets dragged to hell through a procession of devils. All the fun and games culminates in the chilling climax and leaves you thinking about the morality of the play that is always highlighted: always read the fine print, or even more importantly, don’t sign your soul to the devil. The “Renaissance Man” Faustus is an example to all.

Review: Two Planks and a Passion

Written by Anthony Minghella

Directed by Paul Burbridge and Juliet Forster

Producer: York Theatre Royal and Riding Lights Theatre Company

Cast Includes: Michael Lambourne, Emily Pithon and Jonathan Race

Running time: 2 hr 30mins with 20 min interval

The York Theatre Royal is taken back to 1392, as Anthony Minghella’s Two Planks and a Passion revives the excitement and festivities of the York Mystery Plays.

Originating in Medieval England, the York Mystery Plays were a cycle of pageants performed mainly on wagons in a procession that retold biblical stories. Each play was designated to a specific guild, hence much rivalry ensued in an attempt by the guilds to outdo each other and prove the superiority of their trade. It is the politics of putting on the pageants that Two Planks and a Passion humorously and jocosely portrays.

As King Richard II (Jonathan Race) accompanied by his infirm wife Queen Anne (Emily Pithon) and close friend the Earl of Oxford (Michael Lambourne) announce their intention to come to York, the community rejoice whilst the feuding guilds lock horns in an attempt to create the best pageant possible. Each guild pulls out all the stops to create the perfect play. From lavish costume to exuberant set, the guilds give their all to impress the royal guests.

The hilarity of Two Planks and a Passion is derived from the blend of different comedy styles. Slapstick encounters between the King and the Mayor playing golf, ruining his lush green, is a wonderful moment. Attempts by characters to become pretentious by using French in inappropriate ways keeps the laughter flowing. Historically grounded jokes about the budget cuts made to the guilds strike a chord with today’s economy and make much of the humour highly relevant, proving that the combination of cleverly worded wit and farcical action is a successful one.

Such scenes run throughout the play and are enhanced by the vividness of the characters. From the King’s jocular nature to Oxford’s merrymaking and Anne’s love of beds (she acquires five in York), each character entertains and offers more than one dimension. Compassionate moments between the trio are interspersed between more comedic routines, accompanying each other very appropriately.

Of course, the ensemble and other characters including the Mayor, his wife, the parson and others, are played by community members, not professional actors, which is part of the pieces charm. The use of the ensemble to create set and be very much a part of the performance, really captures the vitality of medieval York society in creating the pageants.

The cast come together in a brilliantly constructed climax of Two Planks and Passion which culminates in the performance of the Mystery Plays. Almost like a film, the action cuts from one pageant to another then to the King Richard’s group and then to another guild. Despite an occasional drop of pace in this sequence, it was gripping in mixing comedy with tragedy in an overall fitting end to the play.

Some traditions fade out, and although an attempt was made by the Catholic Church to suppress the Mystery Plays in the 16thCentury, Two Planks and a Passion embodies the community spirit, politics and intricacies of putting on the pageants, in a light-hearted and entertaining show, that transports one to heart of medieval York.

(Originally published on playstosee.com)

Drama Barn Review: Red Snow

Red Snow, a musical written by James Ball and directed by himself and Hannah Higton, fervently sprinkled its presence all over the barn on its opening night, and illustrates, formidably so, that student written productions can find great success with the right head behind them.

Set in Stalinist Russia, Red Snow illustrates the effects of the Communist regime on a group of farmers. Put under pressure by staunch Stalin supporter Bolyen (Benedick Gibson) and his comrade Sergei (Matthew Lecznar) to meet the targets of the Five Year Plans, the community begin to crack. Vladimir (Adam Massingberd-Mundy) and Nina (Ruth Fitton), both members of the village, have their relationship tested under the strains, whilst Zmeya (Max Tyler), comedic bootleg potato seller, declares a love for Nina too. Bolyen’s wife Natasha (Laura Horton) feels the burden as an oppressed woman in Soviet Russia. When the village gets turned into a gulag the society is split resulting in large repercussions for the members.

Red Snow appeared to be a show where the acting and musical aspects of the show never really converged. There were fantastic vocal performances from the entire cast, who blended well together creating a wonderfully balanced array of voices. The music was beautifully composed and full of energy that ran through the show. Lecznar’s vocal performance however included his voice cracking and at one moment found himself stumbling over the words to a song.

There were some thrilling acting displays and on this point, Lecznar was certainly confident, moving through the emotions of his character perfectly, from obedience to illicit passion. Other members of the cast showed glimpses of acting splendour that became monotonous very quickly. Gibson’s disabled war veteran was menacing, vindictive and intense, but the acting was often robotic and never appeared to change gear. Likewise, Massingberd-Mundy, despite a strong vocal display, followed it up with some lacklustre acting that saw him either shouting in rage or crying in despair.

Much of the flatness in character comes from the writing. Whilst the play flowed at a very quick pace and was always moving forward, some characters were not given room to develop. The relationship between Vladimir and Nina was difficult to follow and identify with because it never had the space to explain itself and grow.

Despite this, Laura Horton was able to reconcile acting and singing to offer the whole musical package. Nowhere does she show the raunchy yet tenacious vitality of her character than in the song ‘Drink Comrades’. Slickly choreographed and poignantly sung, this was a fantastic display of Horton’s talent. To follow this up with a tender yet infuriated lament about her position as a woman in Soviet Russia, displayed her true versatility.

As the snow fell from the roof of the Barn, it settled on a truly wonderful piece of theatre that is Red Snow, which, for its shortcomings, more than makes up for it with some wonderful music, stellar voices and good moments of acting that will truly leave you entertained.

(Originally published on yorkvision.co.uk)

Spider-Man Has Met His Match: the Theatre Critics

Marvel’s slinging superhero swung himself on to the big stage this week as Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark opened on Broadway. Costing $70m (£43m), the show certainly had the budget to be a spectacular. However, critics slung harsh words towards the musical that not even Spider-Man could fend off.

Ben Brantley of The New York Times branded the show a “bore”. The show went “from jaw-dropping badness to mere mediocrity” continues Brantley.

The musical was set to open six times since last November, but an array of technical and financial issues halted its progress.

Critics have been quick to pounce upon the budget of the show. Joe Dziemianowicz of the New York Daily News said, “The show reportedly cost $65 million and that’s clearly gone into mechanics, hydraulics and aerial rigging. It seems only 10 cents has gone into the confusing story and humorless dialogue.”

Peter Marks claimed the show was “a definite upgrade [from the preview shows]” but still “a distance from good”.

One would think that music by Bono and The Edge from rock superstars U2 would inject some much needed energy into the musical, however critics did not let up on their words of fury. Thom Geier wrote that the “score is a mostly lackluster collection of forgettable tunes that play like U2 B-sides”, hardly the encouragement needed for a new musical.

In attendance on the opening night were a plethora of stars including platinum selling artist Jay-Z, former President Bill Clinton, musical veteran Lord Lloyd Webber, actors Matt Damon, Liam Neeson and Steve Martin and former tennis star John McEnroe.

Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark has been selling out the Foxwoods Theatre, a 1,928 seat venue and in spite of the heavy handed criticism, it would certainly be an interesting musical to see performed.

Review: Fitzrovia Radio Hour

Slick-suited actors with pomade-styled hair scuttled about a stage cluttered with interesting props to greet the audience at York Theatre Royal for Fitzrovia Radio Hour, TakeOver Festival’s recreation of 1940s radio plays that really brings the radio to life.

Fitzrovia Radio Hour involves four narratives: a moral tragedy about a northerner who aimed too high, an account of British versus gay Nazis in the hunt for treasure in colonial India, a four minute ‘whodunit’ mystery, and a tale about the haunting and possessive nature of a mummified queen. Animated and energetic, the troupe performed these stories with boisterous humour, heightening the comedy through melodramatic facial expressions and stereotyped accents that aimed to satirise some of the prejudices evident in ‘40s radio dramas.

The sound effects – one of the key features of this play – were inventively done, although sometimes distracting. From the squashing of a watermelon representing the gushing of blood, to the dropping of a bag to portray the thud of a body, the sound effects added to the humour of the play, precisely because we could see the method behind their creation.

The authenticity of the radio studio was captured through the adverts for Mr Rathbone’s Chemical Cures, interspersed throughout the performance. The turning of scripts, moving of props and swapping of hats to represent different characters created a believably frantic atmosphere in the studio. However, this fell thin at times and the hysterics weren’t maintained for the whole performance. Attempt at authenticity was often forced.

Fitzrovia Radio Hour certainly provides an ingenious portrayal of 40s radio dramas, excellently and humorously performed. By combining the media of theatre and radio, a unique experience is created and it is our ability to see what other listeners would hear that provides the piece’s charm.

(Originally published on Hausdigital.com)

Drama Barn Review: Ten Days

An ominous dilapidated backdrop, barbed wire menacingly strung along the ceiling, was the setting for Ten Days, written and directed by Qaisar Siddiqui. The setting suggested a play full of suspense – but it quickly revealed itself to be as dreary as its grey walls.

Ten Days is set in an apocalyptic Europe several centuries into the future, where an AIDS crisis has resulted in a dwindling population and left the small settlement of Arcled in deep trouble. Icarus (Joe Williams), the encampment’s despotic leader, forces the inhabitants to reproduce in an attempt to revive the community. Sarah (Anjali Vyas-Brannick) looks to uphold her virtues in a depraved society, whilst her brother Isaac (Ryan Hall), a homosexual scientist, is livened by moments of genius and affixation with the stars, although the significance of this is not made clear.

Gauging the plot was the first challenge of watching Ten Days. There is a sense of crisis in terms of procreating, but the play relies on this theme to carry it through. It lacks narrative progression and once it’s clear that there will be unhealthy kids and the civilisation is in jeopardy, this reviewer wonders what happens next? Not only does the drama suffer from an incoherent and repetitive plot, it also deals with too many issues – from killing babies to homosexuality – but not in any substantial depth, leaving one searching for a more profound meaning to the play.

The direction is as questionable as the writing. There was potential for intensity when Isaac and his lover Quintus (John Askew) confronted one another as the former has a breakdown. Yet Askew had little fervour in his performance whilst Hall spent the majority of the scene with his face in his hands covering his expressions. Much of the play suffered from ineffective staging, whether it was Williams performing with his head to the floor, or Hall talking towards the wall. It was very difficult therefore to sympathise with the characters, making potentially shocking scenes very flat.

Despite this, there were glimpses of success within the play, such as the awkward moment before Sarah and the inexperienced Quintus have sex; Askew encapsulated the innocence of the latter in a truly welcome moment of humour. More of these would have aided Ten Days. Florence-Anne Stratton’s wonderful performance kept the play alive, her character Dahlia injecting much needed energy into it. She blended sarcasm with more serious overtones and did well to orchestrate with Williams one of the most climactic affairs in the piece – Icarus choking Dahlia – ensuring that a small heartbeat remains within the play.

Uninspiring and circular in plot, Ten Days leaves much to be desired. It fails miserably in creating a cogent and gripping narrative, whilst poor directorial choices and one-dimensional acting significantly taint the drama.

(Originally published on Hausdigital.com