Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Time for a move!

Just a little note to anyone visiting this page that I have now relocated my blog to Wordpress.

For all my latest theatrical musings, please head over to http://lovetheatre.net/.

Carry on reading!

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Show Goes On

Originally written for Wessex Scene.

Britain’s politics over the last few months have been dominated by the two c-words: coalition and cuts. It is now over three months since the government released their Spending Review, announcing reductions in all areas of public spending, and the cuts are beginning to bite. One of the hardest hit sectors was the arts, with Arts Council England (ACE) to have its funding slashed by 29.6% over the next four years.

Arts organisations across the country will be forced to tighten the purse strings, but it is smaller regional organisations which are most likely to feel the pinch. In Southampton, our own campus-based Nuffield Theatre is facing up to the challenges of reduced funding and a harsh economic climate. The theatre currently receives funding from a range of sources including ACE, Southampton City Council and the University, but with cuts affecting all these areas there are likely to be hard times ahead.

The Nuffield has recently submitted its application to ACE’s new funding programme, with decisions to be made by 30th March. When grilled by the culture select committee at the end of January, ACE revealed that as many as 600 organisations could have their applications for funding turned down, while many others will see a reduction in the amount they receive.

With cuts to their funding inevitable, the big question is how the Nuffield plans to move forward. Mark Courtice, who is involved in the operations of the theatre, accepts that this will be a challenge.

“There isn’t a magic wand that we can just wave,” he admits. “Theatres look for funding in all sorts of different ways and seek support in lots of different areas. The balance between local authority funding and business funding might change, although the plain fact of the matter is that all funding sources are going to be affected by the current economic climate”.

These tough times present a particular challenge for theatres outside London. Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, has emphasised the struggle that regional theatres like the Nuffield will face in the current climate of cuts.

“Beyond the capital, theatres will be hit twice over by reductions, both in Arts Council subsidy and local government support,” he commented in The Times. “There is simply no prospect whatsoever of them bridging the gap through private giving, which is, outside of London, in its infancy. Cuts in the arts would hit smaller and regional institutions hardest”.

Courtice agrees that there is less money to be had for regional theatres, but he believes that theatres such as the Nuffield provide a vital service to those within the local community who cannot afford to travel regularly to London.

“The Nuffield offers the chance of seeing really good quality work within easy reach – for some people the only reach they’ve got,” he claims. “It’s a very different ball game and our role is to help a whole community have the benefit of theatre in a way that London simply can’t.”

Even in difficult circumstances, the Nuffield is still presenting a varied and ambitious season. Executive Director Kate Anderson believes in the importance of continuing to present challenging work in a time of recession, a belief that is reflected in the programming. The Nuffield is, for example, one of the few theatres to present international theatre company Cheek by Jowl’s Russian version of The Tempest.

“We know what matters,” insists Courtice. “We always have done, and we’re not going to drop what matters because things are looking a bit different. The creative person knows what matters and finds a way.”

The road ahead is without doubt scattered with obstacles, but they are obstacles which the Nuffield Theatre is determined to overcome. While Courtice admits that the future is looking much less secure, he also has faith that “creative people come up with creative answers”.

“The theatre is a place where the community can discuss the things that matter,” Courtice states. “That’s what we have to be providing, a place for that discussion to take place. A discussion is Hamlet, a discussion is A Midsummer Night’s Dream; this is how a discussion takes place on our stage and it takes place with brilliant lighting, wonderful design and fantastic actors.”

The kind of exciting, challenging programming and engagement with the local community displayed by the Nuffield provides a prime example of how valuable the arts are to our nation and presents a convincing case for why we should protect them against further damage. To support the Nuffield it is vital first and foremost to attend as many productions as possible. For those wanting to take a more active approach there are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer and the theatre encourages those who may be interested to get in touch.

Cuts may be inevitable but this is a story that is far from over. If Britain’s varied and vibrant arts scene is to be protected for future generations, we must support our local arts organisations now. As Courtice puts it, “the discussion must go on, however bloody the financial situation is”.

To find out more about the Nuffield Theatre, book tickets or contact the theatre about getting involved with volunteering visit: http://www.nuffieldtheatre.co.uk/.

For those wanting to pledge their support for the arts, sign up at: http://ivaluethearts.org.uk/.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Review: Hamlet, New Theatre Royal Portsmouth, Wednesday 16 February 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

The longest and one of the most often-performed of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet is brimming with potential but requires sensitivity to its complexities and nuances to bring it fully to life. Icarus Theatre Collective’s production aims to give this well trodden ground a fresh and accessible twist, yet their interpretation skates over many of the depths of the text and never feels like it is doing much more than simply going through the motions.

True to Icarus’s intentions of presenting a new and fresh production, there has been considerable chopping and changing of the original text, with even the iconic ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy being drastically relocated to the second half. What emerges, however, is not a radical re-reading; several of the choices feel arbitrary rather than artistic and there is no coherent vision for the production. Director Max Lewendel’s interpretation has taken one step towards radical re-imagining but stopped short and opted for a safe approach, leaving it awkwardly stranded somewhere between traditional and innovative.

The small cast struggle to flesh out a play that at times feels too big for them, putting in a collection of adequate but on the whole unchallenging performances, adding little to roles that have already been subject to interpretation upon interpretation. Loren O’Dair stands out from the rest with a touching, vulnerable portrait of the spurned Ophelia, rendering her emotions in delicate shades and doing a great deal with the short time she is on stage, while John Paton as Claudius has an uneven start but improves as the play progresses, adding some colour to what can be a two-dimensional villain.

More so than any other of the Bard’s plays, a production of Hamlet inevitably rests on the shoulders of its eponymous hero. Unfortunately, in this case Giles Roberts lacks the strength to bear this weight, not fully conveying the character’s depth of anguish and mental turmoil despite a few brilliant moments. So lengthy is the hesitation of Hamlet, the ultimate procrastinator, that it requires an actor of great skill and sensitivity to shed light on his protracted inner struggle. Rarely does Roberts achieve a moving sense of the prince’s plight, and with a lack of truthful emotion in several scenes, all too often this performance feels superficial and forced.

Icarus’s attempt at interpretation is patchy, with unnecessary and confused elements such as the use of human statues and the odd, distracting choice to cast female actress Dani McCallum in the role of Horatio. A powerful moment comes at the close of the first half as Hamlet stands poised over Claudius with his dagger raised, the combination of white-clad figures, echoing voices and eerie lighting achieving an impressive effect, but this is a rare diamond swamped in a gloom of mediocrity.

The purpose of theatre, according to Hamlet, is to ‘hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’. This production, however, falls somewhat short of capturing human passions as they are depicted in Shakespeare’s rich script. While Icarus may achieve their aim of making this text more accessible, there is little to get excited about in this uninspired interpretation.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Review: The Last Five Years, Tabard Theatre, Friday 11 February 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

As small-scale musicals go, Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years is about as intimate as they come. In the tiny space of the Tabard Theatre, the audience are placed as flies on the wall of the five year relationship between successful writer Jamie and struggling actress Cathy, invited into the joys and sorrows of their shared lives. In a unique twist, the couple’s story is told both forwards and backwards; Cathy opens the show at the end of their marriage, her side of the story unfurling in reverse chronology, while Jamie starts at the beginning.

The eighty minutes of this production fly by as we are swept up in the utterly believable drama of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship. Brown has written two characters who are astoundingly and refreshingly ordinary, laying bare the sometimes beautiful and often ugly relationship of two flawed individuals. This is no idealised, hearts and flowers romance. His lyrics flit masterfully between the poetic and the mundane; the characters sing about leaving the toilet seat up or losing weight. There are no truly show-stopping numbers here, but the honest simplicity of the songs is fitting to a show that is moulded entirely around the emotional lives of two people.

The varied score and witty lyrics exploit Lauren Samuels’ full potential, as she belts out flawless high notes and charms with her quirky comic touches, breathing life into Cathy before our eyes. So luminous is Samuels’ performance that she leaves Christopher Pym’s Jamie somewhat in the shadow, despite his best efforts. He brings an overflowing, effervescent excitement to Jamie in the early scenes of their romance but struggles to convey with equal commitment the poignancy of the relationship’s breakdown; while Samuels paints a moving visual portrait of a broken, anguished woman, Pym struggles to achieve the same emotional engagement. Neither can he quite compete with Samuels vocally, with the few cracks in his voice occasionally emerging as the show progresses.

As they move in different directions, Cathy and Jamie never meet except at their wedding, the central hinge of the story. By keeping them apart for the majority of the show, isolated in their own halves of the small stage, the distance between them is emphasised; perhaps, one feels by the end, their relationship failed because they were always two separate parts rather than a unified whole. This is visually mirrored by Ben M Rogers’ beautifully simple set of two identical spaces split down the middle, physically dividing the couple. The ingenious incorporation of video screens showing photographs of the pair provides a timeline for their relationship, as they one by one go dark on Cathy’s side and light up on Jamie’s.

The beauty of Brown’s storytelling device is that it lends a heartbreaking sense of inevitability to the early stages of Jamie’s story, while simultaneously managing to conclude the musical with a wistful shred of hope as Cathy, back in the first bloom of their romance, waves ‘goodbye until tomorrow’. By turns poignant, moving and laugh-out-loud funny, The Last Five Years is a delight of a musical that sings straight from the heart.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Review: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Nuffield Theatre, Tuesday 8 February 2011

Originally written for The Public Reviews.

Successfully reconfiguring a classic is never an easy task, so Headlong Theatre’s bold re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays had its work cut out. In this innovative new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bard’s comedy of angst-ridden lovers and mischievous fairies is resituated to 1960s Hollywood, where director Robin Goodfellow is concluding the shooting of his new movie whilst off-screen romance blossoms between stars Theseus and Hippolyta.

The intoxicating glamour of studio-era Hollywood has a certain resonance with the fairy-dust sprinkled world of Puck and Oberon and in the opening scenes, following a clever opening credits projection that neatly establishes the premise, this production’s fresh and fun concept brims with promise. Putting Puck in the director’s chair is an ingenious device that allows for an implicit questioning of the process of creating and observing drama, while confirming the impish rogue as the true overlord of the comic chaos. Sandy Grierson diverges from the traditional route of playing Puck as an excitable, other-worldly bundle of mischief and instead lends him a jaded movie director’s sardonic edge in what is a refreshingly novel interpretation of the character.

In embracing the updated setting, director Natalie Abrahami has taken the opportunity for playful manipulation of the text. The surreal incorporation of songs into the scenes provides some of the production’s most entertaining moments, while the dreamlike elements occasionally slide into the downright bizarre. Whether it is fairies in 3D glasses munching on popcorn or impromptu musical routines, this production continually surprises, delights and perplexes. Credit must go also to movement director Georgina Lamb, who has constructed an engagingly kinetic interpretation of the script that exploits the comedy to its full potential.

The cast take interesting approaches to characters that can easily become rehashed stereotypes, adding extra facets to these well known roles. Christopher Logan as pompous would-be thespian Bottom and Michael Dylan as an excitable Flute bring out the flamboyant theatricality of these hapless aspiring actors rather than emphasising the buffoonery of the labouring class mechanicals against the wit and intelligence of the aristocratic leads. Logan prances about the stage flaunting his dubious performing skills to any available audience, while Dylan has a hilarious, scene-stealing turn as a pouting Thisbe.

From the remaining solid performances, Max Bennett and Oliver Kieran-Jones as Demetrius and Lysander respectively deserve a mention for their skilful comic handling of the characters’ bewitched affection for Helena, making quite the double act. Deirdre Mullins also impresses as a decidedly gutsy Helena, endowing the spurned lover with a greater helping of scorn than despair. In contrast with more vulnerable portrayals, Mullins has an appealing flinty edge that is nicely suited to this modern updating.

Unfortunately, however, accomplished performances, adept handling of the comedy and an abundance of inventive touches do not ultimately save Headlong’s concept from a lack of cohesion. While the 1960s Hollywood glamour is convincingly evoked, the setting and text do not always make comfortable bedfellows. Headlong and the Nuffield are to be applauded for their attempt to achieve a cutting edge make-over of a much revived work, but the end result does not feel as radical as it promises to be and while it is undoubtedly fun, this interpretation never quite finds its voice.