The source material for The Secret Life of Bees may have a perhaps overly simplistic plot and limited character development but Lynn Nottage, Duncan Sheikh and Susan Birkenhead have done much to bring this story to life through the much more grounded civil rights frame and ongoing challenges faced by working communities, while the music brings a real soulful and impassioned perspective that builds audience engagement.
Mates blogger: Maryam Philpott
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The sun is setting on Michael Longhurst’s time at the Donmar Warehouse and his penultimate production is a timeless classic, Noel Coward’s sparky and charismatic relationship comedy about middle aged love, Private Lives, a fairly safe bet which this century alone has resulted in some great comic pairings from Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan to Toby Stephens and Anna Chancellor. But Coward’s work is tricky to get right and it always looks far easier than it really is.
The Union Theatre reopened some time ago but Betty Blue Eyes is its first in house production since then, a revival of the Stiles and Drewe musical from 2011 about social mobility, the wedding of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and a pig heist.
Anyone who has read the book will know what to expect or if you haven’t then there are enough content warnings to prepare you at least for some of what is to come in Ivo van Hove and Koen Tachelet’s stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. In practice it is a blistering experience that realigns the source material to create a more integrated theatrical experience using plenty of techniques that van Hove more usually applies to working with his Dutch company.
Usually, European productions find a home at the Barbican but The National Theatre of Norway has gone west to Notting Hill for the UK transfer of Dance of Death performed in the original Norwegian with English surtitles. This often thrilling production that explores the melodrama and violence in a 25-year marriage is compelling stuff, demonstrating how to make 120-year-old material feel brand new.
Malevolent forces shaping small communities is a strong premise for all kinds of drama, from the arrival of outsiders that tend to be the focus of horror to the power shifts of Pinter plays that upset the status quo with new authorities forming that overshadow the existing order. Zinnie Harris’ 2000 play Further Than the Furthest Thing combines these ideas with broader notions of industrialisation and the religious management of a community relatively untroubled by the outside world until one if its returning sons brings change.
Playing for a few nights at Wilton’s Music Hall as part of a nationwide tour, Anders Lustgarten’s new play The City and the Town is about the confrontation between past and present, about the consequences of staying and leaving, and whether the ones who leave have any right at all to decide what happens to the ones who stay.
What are the limits of a woman’s ambition at a time when she had no power? Lula Raczka’s new play Women Beware the Devil explores accusations of witchcraft and the meaning of evil at the outbreak of the Civil War in the early part of the 1640s, but while that makes for an interesting premise and context, the story is really about the ambitions of three women of different ages and class in the same house trying to control their environment and the future through their actions.
It is still a relatively rare experience to see a working class drama that invests its characters with a profound and complex, even a poetic interior, life, but from the first moments of Richard Hawley and Chris Bush’s Standing At the Sky’s Edge when a workman stops to greet the beauty of the dawn and the sound of birdsong, it is clear that this is no ordinary representation of
Simon Stone turns his attention to another important literary woman, Phaedra as imagined by Euripides, Seneca and Racine and given a modern retelling in a production at the National Theatre written and directed by Stone. Stone’s vision for Phaedra is riveting in a piece that explores mature sexuality, fantasy and generational competition between mother and daughter.
“Words, words, words,” Eliza Doolittle was sick of them particularly as empty descriptions of the love she wanted a practical demonstration of. Sam Steiner’s play Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons at the Harold Pinter Theatre is first filled with too many of them and then not enough for Bernadette and Oliver, a couple who struggle to express their feelings for one another no matter how many or how few words they are permitted.
Noises Off at the Phoenix Theatre is a fast-paced show that still demands an enormously skilled and precise technical performance from every member of its cast and Lindsay Posner’s team makes it look far easier than it really is. 40 years on, Michael Frayn’s play has still got it.
Director Rebecca Frecknall tackles one of the greatest plays of all time, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire back in the intimacy of the Almeida Theatre and brings a devastating new clarity to it, eschewing the distraction of a heavy set and the cliches that tend to dog interpretations of Williams, from the exaggerated Southern accents to Blanche’s affected gentility.
The sports biography is a great focus for drama and at the Park Theatre the focus is on boxing legend Vernon Vanriel who is telling his own story in the world premiere of On the Ropes, a play he has co-written with Dougie Blaxland. A tale of sporting prowess, celebrity self-destruction and eventually national betrayal, Vanriel and Blaxland’s overlong story doesn’t pull many punches, presenting the good, bad and the alarming misdirections of Vanriel’s event-filled life.
From a red handkerchief disappearing within the hands of a magician to fake footage in the early 20th century, Hampstead Theatre’s latest international import is the UK premiere of The Art of Illusion, a 2014 French play exploring the history of magical performance and inventive approaches to entertaining audiences.
Liz Kingsman’s One Woman Show at the Ambassadors is then more than a pot shot at Fleabag and the like, and is instead an assessment of the performative nature of female roles in popular culture products in which the inauthentic substance of these representations is both highlighted and satirised while fully acknowledging how appealing and entertaining these tropes continue to be.
Stephen Karam’s Sons of the Prophet at the Hampstead Theatre, first staged in 2011, makes its European debut here by starting a lot of conversations that it doesn’t manage to finish.
The National Theatre has quite mixed fortunes when it comes to new play commissions, some become and instant hit – like After Life and the storming success this year of Jack Absolute Flies Again – while others can feel significantly more under-nourished and perhaps staged a little too soon. April De Angelis’s new play Kerry Jackson falls into the latter category with a tale of a relationship across the class divide that looks to explore polarised opinions about homelessness, immigration and compassion between two people who seem, on the surface, ill-suited.
Othello at the National Theatre is a production that has thought very carefully about the things it wants to say and, particularly, what Othello has meant at different points in its performance history. Clint Dyer’s perspective is not on fire just yet but it soon will be, bringing a meaningful reflection on Shakespeare’s tale to the stage while clearly distinguishing it from all of those that have come before.
Office-based plays are relatively few and far between particularly those from the 1930s, so the revival of John Van Druten’s London Wall at the Tower Theatre is particularly interesting, not least for its focus on the female staff of a busy London law firm who struggle to be seen as equals by their male colleagues who treat them either as secretaries or a prizes to be won.
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