james debate
james debate

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Theatre remains one of London's great treats, and the 2012 season is off to a great start. How does the Donmar hold up in the post-Grandage era? Will Simon McBurney see a return to form? We answer all these questions and more as we look at the early notables of London theatre in 2012:

"The Master & Margarita" Theatre Review
Directed by Simon McBurney
Written by Mikhail Bulgakov
Starring Paul Rhys, Henry Pettigrew, Angus Wright
Theatre Barbican, Complicite

master and margarita barbican I don't normally start a review with my conclusion but in this case I will make an exception; holy cow what a show. When it comes to Simon McBurney's Complicite theatre group you are never quite sure what awaits you; sometimes ingenius, sometimes vapid, this is entirely the former.

The Devil and his retinue visit Moscow in the 1930s to attend a gala with a demonic talking cat while Jesus and Pontius Pilate debate the nature of good and evil; in reality an allegory for Stalinism. This is the fevered imaginings of Mikhail Bulgakov whose seminal masterpiece the Master & Margarita has been hailed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, and at the same time a notoriously unadaptable piece of work.

Yet the biggest surprise is not simply that the production manages to hold together, but the panache with which this has been pulled off. It is perhaps to be expected that any adaption of such eclectic source material would involve an unorthodox approach and it is precisely this sort of area where Complicite are known for excellence. The audience is treated to technical marvels including clever use of music, video and 3D animation, and some extraordinarily choreographed climactic scenes.

Fortunately there's more substance here on offer than just a sensory feast, and the acting is equally remarkable. Paul Rhys is simply beguiling as the Bulgakov-like Master and the demonic Woland, a performance so deliciously offbeat that it is impossible to take your eyes off of him. Angus Wright almost steals the stage as the frenetic Koroviev along with Ajay Naidu as Woland's retinue, in equal parts menacing and camp.

Ultimately The Master & Margarita achieves an almost impossibly addictive concoction of zaniness, existential terror and pure excitement. An absolutely unmissable show, easily the best of the year so far and probably comparable to the best of recent years.

"All New People" Theatre Review
Directed by Peter DuBois
Written by Zach Braff
Starring Zach Braff, Eve Myles, Paul Hilton, Susannah Fielding
Theatre Duke of York's Theatre

zach braff all new people duke of yorkWhat does one do after starring in a hit TV show for a decade, and making waves in Hollywood with an award winning debut film? In Zach Braff's case the answer was simple. The star of TV's Scrubs and his writer/director debut Garden State returned to his first love the theatre.

After a moderately successful run in America, All New People has come to the West End. Fans of Braff will recognise his handiwork immediately upon entering the theatre; the very signature Braff  style of soundtrack that typified the production of Scrubs and his various movies plays over loud speakers, featuring many of the same songs. The script even features its share of slapstick comedy and ironic humour with which he has become associated.

However this is a much darker brand of comedy than we are used to, with Braff beginning the opening scene standing on a chair, his neck in a noose. That this scene manages to be hilarious is a testament to both his writing chops as well as his impeccable comedic timing. In addition the script goes into far darker areas including hitmen, prostitution and considerably more profanity than he has ever been able to get away with on TV.

This is a plot that reaches quite close to my heart: a neurotic Jewish guy and a beach house setting in my own childhood haunt of Beach Haven, Long Beach Island. Yet at the same time this is a particularly surreal experience, with amusingly over the top situations and the usual cast of larger than life characters. The mostly tight writing keeps the jokes smart and the gradual reveal of plot points engrossing, while also making time for his trademark moments of tender contrast. What ultimately lets the production down is the clumsy pacing towards the end.

Braff excels at earnest and naturalistic writing, but by forcing his script into a 90 minute running time he is forced to wrap things up in far too abrupt a fashion. Plot threads take awkward twists out of nowhere, and characters turn violently bi-polar in the blink of an eye. It's an unfortunate and uncharacteristic narrative flailing after what is otherwise a reasonably neat and well executed production.

Nevertheless, this stakes a claim as one of the more noteworthy of early 2012 stage productions, and one would be foolish to pass on it while it's in town.

"Making Noise Quietly" Theatre Review
Directed by Peter Gill
Written by Robert Holman
Starring Ben Batt, Susan Brown, Jordan Dawes, John Hollingworth, Sara Kestelman, Matthew Tennyson
Theatre Donmar Warehouse

making noise quietly donmarA lot of eyes have been on, Josie Rourke, the recently installed artistic director of the famed Donmar Warehouse. It is interesting then that Rourke has made the bold choice of reviving Making Noise Quietly, an unsettling, inscrutable piece that has never been to everyone's taste. Sadly on the evidence, it seems a poor choice.

The production takes the form of three short plays each presenting an intimate peek at how personal lives are affected by the spectre of war. The first concerns a troubled conscientious objector's encounter with a precocious homosexual man against the backdrop of countryside bomb raids, the next gives us a sorrowful perspective of a young soldier delivering bad news to a grieving mother, and the last concerns an ill equipped single dad suddenly saddled with a troublesome mute child as a result of war.

It's an interesting concept with the potential for a lot of personal insight. The problem is that this last paragraph contains the entirety of the content of the play. Any psychological or philosophical analysis rarely goes further than skin deep, and the rest of the production's running time is filled with pretentiously vague dialogue the sole purpose of which appears to be to mask the absence of substance and the condescendingly telegraphed "subtext" between characters. This is a script that isn't even half as clever or deep as it thinks it is, and doesn't trust the audience to connect the extremely obvious dots, instead spelling things out as painfully and melodramatically as possible.

To its credit, the acting in this play is perfectly serviceable. Particular mention must go to Matthew Tennyson's performance in the first segment. But this is a rare positive moment for what is otherwise a dull and tedious three hours. An unfortunate and disappointing blip on the record of the Donmar.

The unfortunate truth is that this is a play with little to say, and it takes a long time saying it.

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