Theatre review: Measure for Measure, Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbons production for the Young Vic is a healthy measure of comedy, darkness and inventiveness

Romola_Garai_in_Measure_for_Measure_at_the_Young_Vic._Photo_by_Keith_Pattison

Romola Garai as Isabella in Measure for Measure

Earlier this summer, I saw the Globe’s Measure for Measurea frolicking, lighthearted period production that negotiated Shakespeare’s problem play with frivolous fun.

Joe Hill-Gibbons Young Vic production, meanwhile, tears up the parchment and thrusts the play’s darker, murkier themes in our faces. The play opens with the characters crawling out from under a pile of inflatable dolls, complete with comedy appendages that are both crude and funny. They get thrown around and kicked about, but hang around the stage for the duration, a constant visual gag and a reminder of Vienna’s (and probably our own) grubbiness. They should have had their own curtain call.

Like the Globe’s, this production manages to be lots of fun, but Hill-Gibbons keeps the murky world of political corruption and sexual power and abuse at the heart of this black comedy. Shakespeare’s bawdier bits are helpfully illustrated with well know gestures, verbal stresses and visual – comically graphic – graphics. At just under two hours, the text has been slashed by dramaturg Zoë Svendsen along with some of the characters (Mistress Overdone is undone – I didn’t miss her). This makes it a far neater story and Isabella’s virginity, and the men (Angelo and the Duke) desperately grabbing at it, is given a keener edge. Romola Garai plays Isabella at full pelt. She’s VERY angry, there is none of the meek novice nun about her and there is no faux happy ending for Garai’s Isabella, it’s made clear she still pays a price for freeing her brother. 

Music plays a central role, although forget about any lutes. There constant hum of haunting music which crescendos at key points adds suspense even if at times it seemed intrusive. And the fact that Mariana – the woman Duke-stand-in Angelo stood-up after her dowry, along with her brother, was lost at sea – is an Alanis Morissette fans seems important, if rather an oddly dated reference.

We see some of the action through a video feed as the characters move ‘backstage’ to an industrial concrete space that doubles as a prison. Sometimes we see the characters on stage and on the screen, the jittery camera work adding a layer of menace and claustrophobia.

All this clever staging does at times threaten to upstage the actors, and, occasionally it does (I was completely distracted during Duke Vincentio’s  speech as he prepared to return from his undercover friar mission because of the kaleidoscope of inflatable dolls’s bits and bobs behind him) but mostly the actors win. Zoning Varla plays the Duke with real gravitas until the end when he returns and seems to unravel under the strain of his odd decisions – he’s along way from Dominic Rowan’s loveable, jovial leader. Paul Ready’s Angelo is a nervy civil servant, creepy and officious while John Mackay as Pompey had a suitable sly menace to him beneath his comedy posturing. And, Garai, Garai is great although I would have enjoyed a little more light and shade in her furious Isabella.

Inventive and sexually charged, this production still had Shakespeare at its core and is as bold and absorbing as his works, done at their best, should be. 

Measure for Measure | Young Vic | Until 14 November

Theatre review: Medea, Almeida

A clever reworking of Euripides’s classic text that is full of rage, but never quite catches fire

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

I missed the National Theatre’s powerhouse production of Medea with Helen McCroy in the title role last year when a broken foot curbed my theatre outings temporarily. I am still disappointed I didn’t see it, it sounded everything a Greek tragedy should be, one that punches you in the stomach and leaves you gasping.

The Almeida’s production, as part of their Greek season is, in contrast, rather underpowered. On paper this is theatre gold with author Rachel Cusk on script duties and the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold in the director’s chair, but it’s almost too clever for its own good. All brain and little heart.

Set in modern times, Cusk has, unsurprisingly, re-written Medea as a feminist text and added in a dollop of her brand of suburban nastiness. The chorus is now a group of bitchy yummy mummies, all babyccinos and sniping. They’re good actually, you’ll recognise these characters immediately and even the dancing with baby dolls was witty and tight enough to not to make me – who is very sensitive to theatrical affectation – cringe.

In this reboot, Medea is a successful writer, her husband, Jason (Justin Salinger) a less successful actor. He’s left his wife and moved in with a young, rich model with an indoor swimming pool, leaving Medea with the children. Jason is a weasley spineless twonk – again he’s very recognisable. Medea is obviously a handful, but he is unwilling or unable, to accept his part in the devastation he’s caused. “I fell in love with someone else, that’s all,” he says at one point. Unlike the Euripides’s original, he’s not doing this for the greater good and, at least, doesn’t propose picking up Medea as his mistress once things settle down.

Jason’s downfall is guaranteed the minute Medea makes a pact with the lovely Richard Cant, who plays a Hollywood producer – a modern stand in for the childless King of Athens in the original – struggling to write the book that he has promised to his publishers by the end of the month. Medea says she will write it for him on the condition he gets a script she has written made. The show will go on to be a smash hit and weave the story of Jason’s – and ultimately Medea’s – disgrace. Art imitates life as life starts imitating art.

Gender plays a huge role in this re-write. In Cusk’s (very good) hands it’s a feminist play, although the balance does tip precariously towards gender sniping. There’s a lot of ‘that’s the problem with you women’ and ‘all men have a wandering eye’ etc. Cusk’s absolutely hit the nail on the feminist head with the father of the unnamed mistress who comes to Medea to tell her to back off. His misogyny was horribly recognisable, berating Medea for not being young or beautiful enough and, worse, daring not to care. Not that women come off unscathed – Cusk would never allow that – they are complicit in the trappings of their gender, accepting of their fate as objects of the male gaze, happy, as Medea says, in their “soft bed of compromise”.

Cusk and Goold’s Medea may dig deep into gender politics and attempt to dissect what it is to be a wife and a mother, but ultimately this play is a blood bath. It’s about revenge and one woman’s determination to destroy the man who has betrayed her. Kate Fleetwood as Medea puts in a fine performance, her eyes a blaze with rage for the full 90 minutes, her impressive cheekbones seemingly sharpening with every angry exchange with her ex-husband.

Echoes of the play’s Greekness remain in the costumes that combined jeans with flowing Grecian things. This sartorial mash-up did kind of work, although I disliked the final chorus’s black/white, masculine/feminine costume that seemed curiously half-baked. The production, generally, went a little wayward towards the end, the final 15 minutes rather lost me. We had been transported from the urban modern surroundings we had been in to somewhere else, but I must have missed where – there were mountains. Cusk and Goold duck out of Medea actually killing her children; she does it metaphorically in a scene where the chorus recites the final tragedy. We learn the boys took their own lives (or maybe that’s what everyone is meant to think as in the original? – told you it was confusing). 

Despite the tragic ending, I was rather unmoved – this production may have given me a great deal to think about, but little to care about.

Medea | Almeida Theatre, N1 | Until 14 November 2015

Theatre Review: A Girl and a Gun, Camden People’s Theatre

A complex, witty and thought-provoking look at the ambiguity of how women and violence are portrayed on screen

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Louise Orwin (c) Field and McGlynn

Part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism, A Girl and a Gun is performer and writer Louise Orwin’s challenge to Jean Luc Godard’s comment “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. It’s a witty and multi-layered show that sets out to highlight how the relationship between women and violence became an accepted, even glamorous, part of the movie experience.

Hollywood with its penetrating male gaze and fear of difference has long put women in the shadows when they’re not playing a wife or a victim (or, indeed both) and Orwin’s script aims to untangle the audience’s own coercion with this accepted narrative. A Girl and A Gun examines how the distance between what’s playing on a screen in front of you immediately gives you a different perspective on the events unfolding in front of your eyes as you sit munching popcorn in a dark cinema. Do these  images change when we’re confronted with in front of you on stage? Will the audience recognise what it means to a plot device and their own complicity in this on-screen given? There just a couple of the questions Louise Orwin is asking.

Each night alongside Louise is a ‘him’, played by a man who has no idea of the script or what will be demanded of him. The night I saw A Girl with A Gun, William Drew played ‘him’ and Drew – like those to come read his lines from an autocue and responded – or didn’t, there’s a caveat that he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to – to the stage directions. This involved him dressing as a cowboy, shooting toy guns and dancing. His responses were interesting – he doesn’t for example force Orwin to her knees as instructed and is uneasy pulling the plastic trigger.

Hollywood’s construct of femininity, of women as victims, is played out by Orwin at the end with a montage of several of the ways women in films so often meet their grisly end. This is followed by a scene where Orwin questions women’s own responses and involvement in the on-screen game. She has until that point played a sexy flirt with a Texan drawl obsessed with her hero and his gun. She suddenly drops the drawl and walks off stage, leaving Drew in the spotlight to explain her motives.

The performance is filmed and we see it on the projectors behinds the actors, asking us to confront how differently we respond to what’s on screen and real life in front of us.

This all sounds terribly worthy, and of course Orwin’s show confronts serious issues, but A Girl and A Gun is also fun, with a gentle humour and real wit. It’s a complex show that would hold up to several viewings with its unravelling of mixed messages that is an ambiguous and – at times, confusing –  as the images and screen mythology Orwin is deconstructing.

A Girl and A Gun | Camden People’s Theatre | Until 3 October 2015

Theatre review: Splendour, Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O'Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O’Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Abi Morgan’s gripping, tense tale set against a brewing revolution held me captive  

Set in the opulent palace of a dictator (who we never meet) of an unnamed country in the grip of civil war, Splendour is a taut, tight, tense play that’s ice cool and compelling.

A photojournalist (Genevieve O’Reilly), personally invited by the dictator to take his portrait, arrives at the palace accompanied from the airport by an unreliable interpreter, Gilma (Zawe Ashton), a young jittery woman from the war torn north, hiding her real identity out of fear.

The tyrant is not there, but his wife Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) is there to greet – admittedly not with open arms – Kathryn. Hair as rigid as her grin, last season’s Prada handbag clutched to her body, her pony-skinned heels clip-clopping on the marble floors and standing her ground even though it’s littered with bodies – Cusack’s Micheleine is like a uber-glossy Margaret Thatcher (star of course of Abi Morgan’s The Iron Lady).

The three of them are joined by Micheleine’s best friend of 35 years, Genevieve, a brittle, bird-like widow who has been held emotionally hostage by her powerful pal for reasons that become clear towards the end. She arrives dripping wet from the falling snow, dressed like a World War 2 landgirl whose dug one too many potatoes, urging Kathryn to study the painting by her late husband that hangs in the room (we never see this either).

Across the river, and seen from designer Peter McKintosh‘s huge stately windows, the south side of the city burns under a barrage of bombs. The main roads are blocked by caravans of refugees fleeing the bombing, the back roads thick with treacherous ice. The four women are locked together in this moment that may change them forever.

Splendour is a splintered, yet ultimately tidy tale, Morgan’s script employs some dexterous dialogue that skips between time and language. There’s no linear structure and parts of scenes are repeated with different characters delivering the lines, intertwined with their internal monologues. It sounds complicated, but Robert Hastie‘s neat production that punctuates each part with – literally – a bang helps bring the themes and story arc together while also reflecting the bombardment outside.

Western photographer Kathryn doesn’t speak the language of the country she’s in so relies on the translator Gilma – who, as Kathryn says “is an interpreter who can’t interrupt”. The script is all in English – there are no attempts at dodgy foreign accents – and language and concealment are key themes, while images are held up as reflections of the truth. Genevieve hides her real feelings for her friend; Gilma stashes video tapes and shot glasses in her bag while Kathryn keeps her heart locked. The real truth of how Genevieve’s husband sees his ‘best friend’ – the dictator – is revealed in his picture and Kathryn seeks to tell the truth of conflict through her lens.

The ensemble cast are all fantastic. Cusack as Elnett-fan and Imelda Marcos alike Micheleine is poised and controlled as she watches her riches and power crumble around her. I particularly enjoyed Michelle Fairley as the broken yet steely Genevieve, her performance was beautifully controlled, yet you could sense the emotion seeping through her pores. O’Reilly was cool, considered and captivating as the photojournalist, a rather weakly written character on Morgan’s behalf but pumped full of life by O’Reilly. Ashton as the jumpy, conflicted Gilma also impressed with a punchy performance.

Splendour | Donmar Warehouse | Until 26 September 2015

Theatre Review: The Trial, Young Vic

The Trial performed at the Young Vic Theatre Rory Kinnear as Josef K, ©Alastair Muir

The Trial performed at the Young Vic Theatre
Rory Kinnear as Josef K,
©Alastair Muir

Great performances and the obvious affection for the original text, give this frantic production a heart

How do you adapt Franz Kafka’s The Trial for the stage or screen? It’s been done before of course, notably by Harold Pinter for his 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan, yes, Kyle Maclachlan, then riding high on Twin Peak powers. I haven’t seen Pinter’s version, but Nick Gill, the playwright behind the Young Vic’s nervy production, has clearly gone for ‘let’s throw everything at it and see what works’ approach.

And… it does work – in places. It’s a rather ramshackle production that veers between gripping, frustrating, amusing and boring. Directed by Richard Jones – a man steadier at the helm of operas – this production is frenetic, it barely stops for air, possibly afraid that if it did it may be found wanting. The logic seems to be, that if we keep going at this frantic pace, the audience may not notice the flaws.

But while there were flaws, I largely enjoyed this production, thanks to some very fine performances and, of course, Kafka’s surreal tale as the backbone. As Nick Gill says in this interview for Exeunt Magazine “if I fucking massacre it, it’s The Trial, it’ll survive”. Gill certainly doesn’t “fucking massacre it”, but does it a bit of a thwack over the head leaving us all a little dizzy.

Despite a good supporting cast, this is Kinnear’s play. He’s so good as Josef K with his trademark low key style that sees him making so much impact with a raised eyebrow or frown. It would have been good to have seen his face more, but the rectangle stage that had the audience sitting either side as co-conspirators meant we became more familiar with his back (which could also be very expressive).

This not a diss on Miriam Buether’s set, which sees a conveyor belt run through the middle of the rectangle stage, bringing with it various bits of bland furniture – we’re in K’s office, now we’re in his bedroom, oh, and back to his office – without having to break the pace. No wonder Kinnear was sweating through his vest.

There were moments when this production really sparked, when Kafta, Gill and the characters were all working as one. But overall I thought this would have worked better as a darker, even more surreal production, one that didn’t have to play for laughs as much. I know it’s a cliche to compare The Trial to 1984 (they obviously share a totalitarian thread, but have very different tones) but what I enjoyed about the Playhouse production of Orwell’s classic was that it captured his sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere. Guaranteed, The Trial is funnier than you’d think (no really) but it’s not a book you’d read for its lolz. And lets never speak about the bit where the talented Hugh Skinner (W1A’s intern Will “ya” Humphries) had to pretend to be a dog (“like a dog!”), which was weird at first and then just boring. And weird is always better boring, but they’re not always that different.

The Trial | Young Vic | Until 22 August

Theatre review: Money Womb, Theatre503

Jon Cottrell as Peter Finch and Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop in Velvet Trumpet's Money Womb

Jon Cottrell as Peter Finch and Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop in Velvet Trumpet’s Money Womb

A darkly comic tale of dreams, failure, love and London

Full marks to the Velvet Trumpet, a small theatre company with big ambitions, who aren’t afraid to be inventive and push against the squeeze on funding and challenge the social status quo that seems to have theatre by its vice like, privileged grip.

After a string of successes, this small production company is staking its claim as “London’s finest comedy theatre company” with its original works all created, directed and performed by this band of south Londoners.

Velvet Trumpet’s latest production is Money Womb, the debut play by “man-in-crisis” Nick Smith playing at Battersea’s Theatre503. This story of one young East Midland’s boy with big dreams and small pockets, is one that many of us can relate to – maybe not the actual content which is gritty and bleak – but certainly the broad outline.

Played with force by Jon Cottrell, Peter Finch leaves his Midlands town behind to search out a future in London, persuading his girlfriend, Hannah Jessop, to follow him. It’s an age old tale, a modern day Dick Whittington, but far from finding the streets paved with gold, Peter discovers a city where the pavements are awash with powder and deceit.

Smith’s smart two-hander, which largely sees Cottrell as Peter directing bitter monologues at the audience as his dreams crumble along with his relationship, capture a London that is bigger than the people who live here. A city that will swallow you if you don’t learn to swim with, rather than against, its force. Peter becomes an increasingly desperate figure as he prowls the stage, snarling at his patient girlfriend and bemoaning his squalid east end flat and lowly status. Are we meant to sympathise with him? Understand him? Maybe not, but there is pathos in the character and Cottrell’s performance.

Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop (who also doubles up as a particularly hard-nosed benefits officer) was a softly spoken counter to Peter’s aggressiveness and I thought she captured the vulnerability and innocence of her character beautifully. Her lovely performance was helped by Hannah being a well-drawn character, a lower-middle class female who wasn’t being judged for her lack of ambition or defined by her sexuality. She was quietly strong-willed without any of the drama that can tip a female character into ‘mad cow’ territory so beloved of many male playwrights.

Perhaps Money Womb runs on a little too long (an interval could have worked) and the over reliance of cocaine as a metaphor for London’s dark heart could have been side-stepped for something more original, but this is a thought-provoking play from a theatre company committed to finding a contemporary voice in London.

Money Womb | Theatre503, Battersea | Until 8 August 2015

Theatre Review: Measure For Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O'Hea as Lucio in the Globe's Measure for Measure

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O’Hea as Lucio in the Globe’s Measure for Measure

A breezy performance of Shakespeare’s notorious problem play on a hot summer’s day

There are few places I’d rather be on a hot Sunday afternoon that Shakespeare’s Globe. Sure, it’s one part tourist attraction, one part theatre, but that’s partly what makes it such a thrilling place to be. People come here from all over the world to watch a play they may not understand. And everyone loves it, especially the cast who always looks like they’re having the best time even when scowling at helicopters and sweating in their polyester doublets.

In an era of spectacular sets and elaborate immersive theatrical experiences, there’s a real thrill to watching very good actors, dressed in what look like costumes from the RSC reject box, on a bare stage performing works first played on this very spot 500 hundreds years ago. But despite being on the tourist trail, and retreading a London of half a millennium ago, there’s nothing of the museum about the Globe. It pulses with more life than many other London theatres,  and feels fresher than a lot of them too.

There is often something of the pantomime about Globe performances (and I don’t mean that as a criticism) and Measure For Measure, artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s swansong for the Globe, is no exception.

Measure For Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem play. Not only does it not fall neatly into the comedy bracket it’s assigned to, but the plot is nuts. For those that don’t know *Sparknotes klaxon* Duke Vincentio, fed up with the debauchery  in his city of Vienna pretends to leave town (he actually temporarily dresses as a Friar to watch the town’s antics in disguise. Because, Shakespeare)  and leaves his very uptight deputy, Angelo in charge. Angelo is not standing for any of this naughty nonsense and immediately stamps his authority by sentencing Claudio, a young man who has got his girlfriend Juliet pregnant, to death. *Gasp*.

Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is unrelentingly virtuous and pretty – as Vincentio as the Friar observes, “the hand that hath made you fair hath made you good” – a combination that Angelo can’t resist. He promises to release Claudio if Isabella gives up her virginity to him. But, fear not, the Duke/Friar is on hand to hatch a cunning plan which won’t involve Isabella having to sleep with Angelo nor Claudio dying.

Alongside the WTF plot and the dark vein of cynicism that Shakespearean spins through the text, Measure for Measure is a study of patriarchal authority, of male manipulation in a world where women are a commodity, useful only for their bodies which, if they are not going to offer up to men at a price, will have to be blackmailed into it. Obviously this was largely how women were viewed in the early 17th century, and indeed are all too commonly seen today, but it can be uneasy viewing at times.

Dromgoole neatly sidesteps the play’s bigger issues without being flippant and pulls off a great production with plenty of proper hearty laughs (rather than smug English grad Shakespeare guffaws). And there is a happy ending of sorts (although, honestly, if Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio/the Friar wasn’t so charming, I would join the rest of the world in not filing this ending under ‘happy’).

Rowan’s Duke/Friar is a delight among a cast not short on great performances. Globe regular, Brendan O’Hea, who plays flamboyant Lucio, threatens to steal the show, but is given a run for his money by a quick-witted Trevor Fox as Pompey (full marks for the improv when catching a groundling reading the text) and Mariah Gale as an emotional and compassionate Isabella (a tricky feat in a character so defined by her religious doctrine).

All tremendous fun, if not one of the problem play purists (if such a thing exists).

Measure For Measure | Shakespeare’s Globe | Until 17 October 2015

Theatre Review: Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

Heartbreak Hotel, The Jetty

This immersive show is more M4 Travelodge than Savoy

The trend for immersive theatre, spearheaded so brilliantly by companies like Punch Drunk, seems to be in danger of eating itself. It’s certainly lurching towards the end of the seesaw, balancing on the edge of the tipping point as everyone with a theatre studies A Level scrambles onto this exciting new trend they’ve read about in Time Out.

When it’s done well, as my last immersive adventure was, it’s captivating, enthralling and inventive, shaking up the traditional static theatrical model with humour and imagination. But, as with any new take on an art form, you have to understand the rule book before you go ripping it up.

Zebedee, the company behind Heartbreak Hotel, currently playing at The Jetty on the Thames by that great ode to the mainstream, the 02, had obviously thrown the Book of Theatre Rules into the river. The production, set in a fading seaside hotel purpose built from shipping containers, is rather adrift. The audience are taken from room to room, meeting the lost souls who reside within the hotel’s dimly lit walls. We, the audience, are treated as members of the new A.C.H.E (achieving creative heartfelt experiences) programme which has been established in the Heartbreak Hotel to, well, we’re never really told – is it to give people a convincing experience of love and heartbreak? Or is it a An Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brain wipe style programme? 

The set up is a nice idea, and the set establishes an authentically shabby, sinister atmosphere. But the production lacks cohesion, purpose – and heart.  The place, performance and, to an extent, the cast, felt like they’d already checked out on this miserable autumnal July day. We were launched straight into the middle of the play and there was no resolution – we were all marched to the rooftop (smashing view, mind) and left to shuffle away awkwardly as the play stopped dead in its tracks.

Even if your audience are standing, a dramatic arc is vital, without it you’re watching people say words in isolation and, as this show proved, that’s quite dull. Plus, an immersive production has to be just that – immersive – the audience has to be a part of the show not just bystanders. Otherwise we could buy a ticket for a show where we get to sit down. Beyond calling us by our names (we all had to wear stickers as if we were at a conference) there was little participation between the actors and the audience, indeed most of the time we might not have been there at all. Sometimes I wondered whether we shouldn’t be. 

Heartbreak Hotel lurches between camp and tragedy and the result is jarring and confusing. The funny bits weren’t funny enough, the sad parts felt contrived and tried too hard to tug at our heartstrings with dramatic backstories that had no substance. The dialogue was largely improvised which, except in the very best of hands, is rarely a good idea. The lack of a script meant there was no emotional depth as the characters flailed around in a plotless abyss, desperately trying to claw some heart from a production as thin as the walls. Booking into the Heartbreak Hotel is most definitely not a five star experience.

Heartbreak Hotel | The Jetty | Until 27 September 2015

Theatre Review: Alice’s Adventures Underground, the Vaults, Waterloo, London

Les Enfants Terribles' Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Les Enfants Terribles’ Alice’s Adventures Underground, Vaults Theatre

Go down the rabbit hole for a wonderful immersive experience in Alice’s Wonderland

You could argue that it’s difficult to go wrong with a story as enchanting as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the slightly darker follower up Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There , but handling a text as bonkers and imaginative as Carroll’s demands big creative thinking.

The minds behind Les Enfants Terribles’ brilliant production were clearly firing on full creative juices when they devised Alice’s Adventures Underground, a production that has transformed the musty, damp Vaults theatre under Waterloo station into a magical place where we disappear into Alice’s – and Carroll’s world – for 90-joyous minutes.

The production merges Alice’s first adventure in Wonderland with her return in Through the Looking-Glass. Alice is absent for much of our journey, but she’s never very far away if you look in the right places…

Wonderland is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen who has banished nonsense from her kingdom and is on the warpath to find the cards who ate her tarts (I can confess I was one of them now there’s no chance of having my head cut off).

The content is perhaps a little light, but the plot isn’t an issue when the staging is so charming and entertaining. Samuel Wyer’s maze-like set is hugely impressive as we weave in and out of the Caterpillar’s middle eastern cushion-strewn den into Bill the Lizard’s ‘secret’ room, ducking under corridors hung with pages from novels and walking through wardrobes. There are some wonderful details in the set, particularly in Lewis Carroll’s cluttered study, the first room we find ourselves in, that’s littered with references to the novels if you look hard enough.

Oliver Lansley’s script is sparkling and funny and throws new light on the sheer inventiveness of Carroll’s often poetic prose. The interactions with the actors also lead to some properly belly-laugh moments (Knave of Hearts: “What fruits to do you think are in All-Fruit-Jam?” Audience member: “Strawberry”. Knave “…”

Along the way you meet the floating grinning head of the Cheshire Cat (a great piece of puppetry) and enter the Duchess’s steamy kitchen where I stood grinding pepper into the soup under the stern eyes of Chef. You, as the audience are very much a part of this so leave any self-consciousness at the burrow door.

The exact journey you have will depends on the choices you make and the cards you are – literally – dealt. Will you drink to shrink or eat to er, grow? Will you be a Club, Spade, Diamond or Heart? After separating through two doors, each group is taken on their separate journey before meeting up again at the lush Mad Hatter’s Tea Party where you sit at a huge table set for 60 celebrating an un-birthday while the Mad Hatter and March Hare run riot over broken tea-cups and poor dormouse, confusing the poor White Rabbit (who was as adorable as he should be) with their endless tea-time and confusing riddles.

The production is wonderfully imaginative and hugely fun. Grown-up theatre is many things, but it’s rarely as playful and charming as Alice’s Underground Adventures. The production runs until 30 August 2015. Don’t be late to the party…

Alice’s Underground Adventures | the Vaults Theatre, Waterloo | Until 30 August 2015

Theatre Review: Death of a Salesman, Noel Coward Theatre

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC's Death of a Salesman

Antony Sher and Harriet Walter in the RSC’s Death of a Salesman

Now into its final week at London’s Noël Coward Theatre after transferring from Stratford-Upon-Avon in May, the RSC’s Death of a Salesman shows no sign of slowing down. The Gregory Doran-directed production is hugely powerful, a juggernaut of emotions and intensity with staggeringly good performances.

Arthur Miller’s tale of one man’s downfall at the hands of his own stubborn pride is a masterpiece of theatre, but one that requires a deft directorial hand and confident acting to pull off. Willy Loman, the salesman of the title, has been flogging stuff on the road in New England for 36 years and is dog tired. His small life isn’t big enough to contain his dreams and he starts hallucinating about the past, back to a time when his sons, Happy and Biff, were young and full of potential. He also re-visits the moment his successful – and now dead – brother Ben left New York to start a new life in Alaska – later Africa – and his ghostly form drifts into Willy’s head and onto the stage with a smarmy smugness.

Juggling the past and present in a theatre production isn’t easy, but Doran makes it look like it is, the ease with which Willy’s mind alerts in front of us is impressively seamless and the cast handle the jolts in time with a fluidity that takes us right into the heart of the story.

Willy is, of course, a frustrating character. On the brink of madness, he’s been dealt some fierce blows in his 63-years, but his downfall – like King Lear’s – is ultimately his stubborn pride in himself and his son Biff. That he isn’t able to live up to the man he projects to be is a key part in the downfall of the adolescent Biff, who goes from being a well liked teenager with potential to the 34-year-old man we see on stage – broken, bitter, confused. The Death of a Salesman is in many ways about the curse of being ordinary

Antony Sher’s performance as Willy Loman is really something special. He captures Loman’s madness, vulnerability, nativity and arrogance in a compelling performance. The always watchable Harriet Walter is exceptional as Linda, Willy’s long suffering wife whose patience is saintly yet steely. As with other Miller wives, Linda’s husband is her life; her strength is his – in many ways she’s the powerful figure in the house. I can’t imagine these Miller’s wives are easy roles to play without seeming meek and submissive, but there’s real strength in Walter’s performance. Alex Hassell as Biff is also a perfect mix of vulnerable, confused and angry. He is the only character who seeks the truth about himself and his family. He is as believable as the ‘hey, gee’ football playing 17-year-old as he is as the jobless kleptomaniac he becomes. Sam Marks as the younger son Happy manages to flesh out what is a deliberately a one-dimensional character – I even rather liked him.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set accentuates the gloomy claustrophobia of a Brooklyn before it was fashionable without it overwhelming. Although it would have had its work cut out to overshadow this powerhouse of a production.

Death of a Salesman | Noel Coward Theatre | Until 18 July 2015

by Suzanne Elliott