Comedy review: Sarah Kendall, Soho Theatre

Entertaining and engaging, Sarah Kendall’s observation on bad luck/good luck is an amusing, poignant look at our lot in life

Sarah Kendall3 - credit Rosalind Furlong

Sarah Kendall’s One-Seventeen deals with the theme of luck, based on a Chinese proverb about what constitutes good luck/bad luck, where one can be disguised as the other. Kendall explores how our lives can change in an instant, and how we may not even be aware of that moment’s significance until later when we take back and unravel the strands.

One-Seventeen isn’t your typical comedy show. There is a sad seam that runs through the hour-long show that moves between time and place as Kendall weaves together tales from her past and present.

This isn’t a show that provokes belly laughs, although there are plenty of funny moments. It is a show that is as poignant as it is humourous, where moving moments collide with amusing undercurrents – for example how her brother reacts to a real-life – nearly fatal – car crash as if he were in the Dukes of Hazzard (a favourite show of the siblings).

Kendall is at her funniest when doing impressions of her hugely pessimistic mother who in contrast to her more pragmatic, star-gazing father, sees everything as doomed. That, and the stories of her nouveau riche neighbours in Australia who bonded her quarrelling mum and dad better than any marriage counselling.

Star-gazing is a theme that runs through the show, from reminiscing of standing on the lawn in Australia pretending to see Halley’s comet, to fast forwarding to her life today in south London as a married mother of two, and her father, the other side of the world, asking her as she stood on her tiny London patio what stars she could see.

Kendall’s great skill is as a storyteller. Each of these individual tales is engaging and absorbing, told with genuine warmth and a captivating cadence. There’s an argument that perhaps each anecdote works better as an individual story than as an all-encompassing take on life and our place in it.

But overall, One-Seventeen is a beautifully crafted show that is as touching as is it funny and moves away from comedy clichés to take a wry and thought-provoking look at how fate trips us up with stealth.

Sarah Kendall | On tour across the UK | Until 20 June 2018

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Theatre Review: Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

A witty, engaging grease-paint smeared story of Georgian modern theatre that fizzes along with gusto

mr-foote-2-large

Joseph Millson, Dervla Kirwan and Simon Russell Beale in Mr Foote’s Other Leg, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Transferring from the Hampstead Theatre to its rightful home – the Theatre Royal Haymarket plays a starring role – Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a rollicking zing of a play.

There are some pretty big theatre names in this production about a big theatre name. You may not actually know his name, but the titular Mr Foote is a man credited with changing the stage landscape, his influence still resounding in theatrical practice today.

Simon Russell Beale plays Samuel Foote in this Richard Eyre-directed production of Ian Kelly’s play. When we first meet Foote (after a quick posthumous trip to meet his long lost right leg), he’s at an elocution lesson, a budding actor on a mission to rid himself of his broad West Country accent to train his vowels for a life treading the broads (after his life changing incident, his Truro cadence mysteriously reappears).

In the first half, we follow Foote on his journey to being one of the biggest names in 18th century theatre, through the face-powder smeared dressing rooms, the bitching, the post-show highs and the rivalry with fellow thesp, David Garrick (Joseph Millson). He’s having a whale of a time – as are the audience, or me at least – mingling with Benjamin Franklin (nicely played by Colin Stinton) and getting the unseen 1700s crowd roaring in the aisles with his cross-dressing comedy routines (a shout out for the costumes, they’re wonderful in there petticoated abundance). But Foote’s fun comes to an abrupt end at the half way curtain when an unfortunate bet involving a spot of horse riding ends with Foote a leg down. 

Dr John Hunter, played exuberantly by Forbes Masson, saves Mr Foote’s life – and his leg, the play begins with Mrs Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale) and Frank Barber (Micah Balfour) attempting to steal it back from the doc’s basement. But Foote is never quite the same again, his eccentricity slipping more and more into bad judgement and self-sabotage. The second half is less frantic, more moving and bittersweet, Foote’s love of the spotlight illuminating his less palatable quirks and landing him on the wrong side of a powerful socialite. 

Mr Foote’s Other Leg is a richly comic play that fizzes along with intelligence, wit and charm. Occasionally it gets a little tangled in its own cleverness, but for the most part, the story is gripping and hugely entertaining. SRB is, as usual, an impressive acting powerhouse as Foote – mischievous, camp, haughty and endearing, he wraps his tongue around Kelly’s sometimes odd prose rhythm with an assurance that only someone so at ease with theatrical linguistics as Russell Beale could.

Simon Russell Beale may dazzle, but the rest of cast don’t wilt in his bright light. Dervla Kirwan as his acting partner Peg Woffington gives a lovely understated performance that has wit and charm, and later, sadness. Bleasdale as the Mistress Quickly-alike Chudleigh injects the part with zeal, while Balfour offers a nice sobering presence among all the dramatics. Playwright Ian Kelly (Hermione Granger’s father no less) makes an imposing appearance as George III (before the madness set in, in fact he’s often the sanest person on stage).

Kelly’s play owes something to the bawdiness and calamity-strewn themes of restoration comedy, but there’s also touches of Shakespeare. There is a good dose of theatrical in-jokes, a recurring seam involving the Georgian revival of Shakespeare and the birth of the Stratford-upon-Avon plastic skull cash-in is funnier than that sentence sounds. But Mr Foote’s Other Leg goes deeper than clever-clever English-grad pleasing moments, it’s touching, funny, warm and richly entertaining. Not to mention a treasure trove of knowledge for anyone with an interest in theatre.

Theatre Royal Haymarket | Until January 23rd 2016

Theatre Review: The Rivals, Arcola Theatre

Iain  Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

Iain Batchelor as Captain Jack Absolute in The Rivals at the Arcola Theatre

As Jane Austen showed, Regency Bath with its petty snobberies and bored, gouty bourgeoise was ripe for satirical picking. Richard Sheridan takes Austen’s gentle satire and cranks it up to 11, poking fun at the newly wealthy middle classes and minor aristocrats in The Rivals, a play brimming with playfulness of language and cocky bravado. The Arcola Theatre’s revival of it is every bit as fun as it should be, brightening up a filthy afternoon in Dalston (no easy feat).

Upper class Lydia Languish’s (Jenny Rainsford) head is full of romantic novels and longs to suffer for love like the heroines in the books she borrows from the circulating library (“vile places indeed!”). Happily for Lydia she  falls in love with a man she believes to be an impoverished officer, who goes by the hugely unromantic name of Ensign Beverley, who she is plotting to elope with.

Of course her posh relations, of which she only seems to have one, her aunt Mrs Malaprop (yes, her of using words in the wrong context fame) really won’t stand for her niece gallivanting off with a lowly red coat. In reality, Mrs Malaprop (Gemma Jones) actually has nothing to worry about as Beverley is actually the far richer – and much more plausibly named – Jack Absolute – who is having an absolute ball teasing his beloved with his great ruse (remember, these are the days before Pointless).

Jack’s wheeze hits a major stumbling block when his rather severe father, Sir Anthony Absolute (Nicholas Le Prevost), informs his son that he has arranged a marriage for him. Furious, Jack quarrels with his father before learning that he’s fated to be married to none other than… yes, Lydia Languish. Well I never!

But how will he get round the slippery problem of Lydia loving his poorer alter ego? And there’s also the problem of another real life rival, the rather boarish Bob Acres (Justin Edwards) who is determined to see off this upstart Beverley. Cue plenty of farcical mix-ups that encompass their small society including the romantically jealous Faulkland and his exasperated fiancee Julia, impoverished Irish gentleman Sir Lucius O’Trigger and several servants including Lucy who stirs the misunderstandings up to a roiling boil.

The story is delightfully and brilliantly daft, Sheridan’s genuinely funny script sends up 18th century society like a Jane Austen after a bottle of Port. As sparkling witty as Sheridan’s script is though, this play needs fine comic actors to pull it off, any hint of self-consciousness would render The Rivals toe-curling embarrassing to watch. The cast in Selina Cadell’s production tackle the story with bravado, pulling out the humour with some brilliantly judged campness and arch-knowingness. Gemma Jones (Spooks’ evil Connie) has fun with a pink-haired Mrs Malaprop and Jenny Rainsford is dramatically pouty mouthed as the spoilt Lydia. Justine Mitchell impresses as Julia who must convince her silly fiancé that she does love him with many flowery speeches. Iain Batchelor is an exuberant Jack Absolute brimming with cheeky charm and a convincing cockiness. You want to cheer when all’s well that ends well. Which of course it is.

The Rivals is on until 15th November at the Arcola Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.arcolatheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott 

Theatre Review: The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

The Play That Goes Wrong, Duchess Theatre

Farce and slapstick are divisive types of comedy; they will either leave you crying with laughter or cringing with shame. The line between appalling and appealing is small with this kind of comedy and it takes an excellent script, dynamic acting and tight direction to make all elements fall (often literally) into place and pull off this deceptively difficult genre.

The aptly named Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Goes Wrong has largely succeeded in bringing all those elements together to create an evening that has had audiences metaphorically rolling in the aisles since it debuted at the Old Red Lion in Islington before making its first  West End appearance in 2013. After travelling to Edinburgh, it’s back at London’s Duchess Theatre until early next year.

The play that goes wrong is  am-dram group the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society’s attempt to put on a 1920s whodunit, The Murder at Haversham Manor. The Play That Goes Wrong wrings out all the elements of hammed-up amateur-dramatic productions, camp period murder mysteries and the archness of the theatre with a great deal of clever silliness.

Despite not being an enormous slapstick fan,  The Play That Goes Wrong still had me chuckling. This is not subtle theatre, it’s frantic to the point of mania at times and you are assaulted with slapstick (much of the humour revolves around the set falling down). Much has been made of its comparison to  Michael Frayn‘s Noises Off, his genius play following the backstage woes of a touring theatre company. The Play That Goes Wrong isn’t as sophisticated as Frayn’s  classic, although it’s not without intelligence and a dollop of farcical meta – my favourite parts were when the actors were acting at not-acting, when you caught a glimpse of the character behind the character.

It’s a well honed piece of theatre made all the more impressive by its backstory. Three of the cast members (Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields) also wrote the script and this a passion project with plenty of heart and humour.

The Play That Goes Wrong is booking until Feb 2015 at the Duchess Theatre. For tickets and more information for The Play That Goes Wrong and other London theatre visit www.officialtheatre.com.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: The Rosie Effect: Don Tillman No. 2 by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, published by Michael Joseph

The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion, published by Michael Joseph

Several months after their marriage and the completion of The Rosie Project, we once again meet Don Tillman and his now wife, Rosie Jarman. The couple have re-located from Melbourne to New York where Don is a professor in genetics at Columbia University while Rosie juggles her PhD and her medical studies at the same institution.

Since meeting Rosie, ultra-rational Don has become accustomed to a slightly more disordered life than the one he was used to prior to The Wife Project, abandoning the Standardised Meal System and successfully – for the most part – adapting to sharing living space with another person. But Rosie throws a huge spanner into the last straps of his spreadsheet-dominated life when she announces she’s pregnant. The ensuing Baby Project initially has rather less success than his previous scheme, but with the help of his seven friends he may once again overcome his genetic hardwiring to triumph in a human relationship.

Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project was one of the most delightful books I’ve read, and its sequel, while maybe not quite as focussed, is still a wonderfully joyful read. Simsion has created a fictional superstar in Gregory Peck look-a-like Don and, even if the plot is a little contrived, Simsion – like Don –  constantly surprises. He’s a fantastic comic writer with a lively brain and neat style; just when it looks like we’re wandering down the weary road of rom-com cliche, Simsion unleashes a perfectly timed comic shift. The plot may be a little thin, but it’s padded out by some fantastically funny set pieces as the very loveable Don once again lands himself in accidental scrape after scrape.

Joining Don on his new project is old mate Gene, over from Australia after the collapse of his marriage; Dave, a bloke Don met watching baseball in a bar and George, an ageing British rock who form part of Don’s small friendship group. And it’s testament to Simsion’s talent as a writer that he can make even that old ‘ageing British rock star’ stereotype feel fresh.

The only aspect that doesn’t feel quite realised is Rosie herself. In The Rosie Project, she was a little blurry, but as we were seeing her through Don’s less than emotionally focused eyes, I presumed that this was deliberate. But once again, she’s a faint outline who does little except moan. Her motivation for leaving Don, even including some clever childhood psychology and a genetic argument, never quite rung true. It was only towards the end that we saw hints of The World’s Most Perfect Woman’s own far from average rationale giving us a glimpse at the couple’s compatibility than had been missing.

But while her name might be in the title, The Rosie Effect is Don’s story and the Don Tillman effect is once again enchanting.

by Suzanne Elliott

The Rosie Effect is published by Michael Joseph and available in hardback and Kindle from 25th September 2014.

Foyles

Waterstones

Theatre Review: Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, The Duke of York Theatre

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Stephen Mangan as Wooster and Matthew Macfadyen as Jeeves in Perfect Nonsense

Wot oh, pip-pip and all that. An evening with Jeeves and Wooster isn’t going to be Ibsen, although the Norwegian playwright does get a name check in Perfect Nonsense, the West End adaptation of P.G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters. What you do get instead of chin-stroking meaning-of-life musings is an evening of theatrical frivolity with lots of high jinks, jolly japes, some super-charged acting and plenty of hearty chuckles.

Stephen Mangan (Wooster) and Matthew Macfadyen (Jeeves) are nearing the end of their six month (six month!) West End run and only have a few weeks left before they hand the cow-shaped creamer (more on that later) over to Robert Webb and Mark Heap on 7 April.

Their enthusiasm, or at least their enthusiasm for pretending to be enthusiastic, hasn’t dipped which is no mean feat as this is a whirlwind of a production. The Goodale Brother’s script nimbly works in many of Wodehouse’s cunningly complex tongue-twisting dialogue while Sean Foley’s direction sets a relentless pace; the script requires as much verbal gymnastics as the physical demands involve bodily acrobatics.

Like Wodehouse’s novels, all the best farces and blondes (I can say that, I am – *ahem* – one) Perfect Nonsense is far cleverer than its silliness implies with a lot of gentle poking fun at the expense of theatre, exposing the absurdity and artifice of stage. The conceit is that Jeeves is performing a one-man-show dramatising his recent high-jinks with a cow-shaped creamer that takes him from a Chelsea antique’s dealer to Totleigh Towers, the home of the bombastic Sir Watkyn Bassett.

Perfect Nonsense opens on a bare stage where Wooster is enthusiastically breaking down the fourth wall and filling the audience in on the story behind his theatrical debut.  Bertie’s attempt to re-tell his adventures single-handedly soon runs into trouble, but, as ever, Jeeves has solved the problem before Bertie even knows he had one, gamely agreeing to play several of the characters himself and roping in Wooster’s Aunt Dahlia’s butler Seppings (Mark Hatfield) to act the rest, a role that means impersonating everyone from an imposing dictator to Bertie’s even more imposing aunt.

There are plenty of Wodehouse’s fine words in the Goodale Brothers’ adaption to ensure a buoyant script, but the actors are still required to walk a fine line between a play that could be toe-curlingly daft or wonderfully silly. Fortunately, Mangan, Macfadyen and Hadfield all inhabit their many roles on the right side of the farce fence. Matthew Macfadyen, an actor I have previously found as a charming as a wet sock was never going to win me over as that pompous old stick Jeeves. But he revealed the great actor I never realised he was with his fantastic performances as ‘Jeeves’. The part when he’s simultaneously both Sir Watkyn Bassett and his niece Stiffy Byng is as fine a piece of comic acting as I’ve seen this side of the Old Vic’s 2011 Noises Off.

Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense is a deftly daft, big brained comedy that will leave you feeling pretty tickety boo, old chap.

For tickets and more information on Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense at the Duke of York visit www.jeevesandwoostertheplay.com

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: Skios by Michael Frayn

Skios by Michael Frayn

My first introduction to Michael Frayn was his 2002 novel Spies which I picked up in a book exchange in a guesthouse in Cambodia a few years ago.

This Second World War based drama was one of those mesmerising novels that you long to linger over and savour every word, but whose pull is such that you gallop through it only to be left bereft as you reach the final page all too soon. It’s been years since I read it in the suffocating humidity of a pre-monsoon season Cambodia, but I still think about the book and the feeling of reading it almost as often as my mind drifts to those lazy days in South East Asia.

Naturally I sought out other Frayn works. His Booker Prize shortlisted Headlong was a brilliant, snortingly funny countryside farce-thriller; The Scoop-like Towards The End Of The Morning a comedy set in the smoke-tinged, boozy world of a corner office of a Fleet Street newspaper during it’s dying days. And on stage, the majestic Noises Off (I also saw Democracy last year and, lets just say I’m a political philistine who prefers my Frayn funny or moving).

In his latest novel Skios, Frayn is firmly back in farce territory. In fact, this is farce so farcical it makes Noises Off look like, well, Democracy. Silly yet clever, hugely improbable yet completely believable, Skios follows Oliver Fox, a daft fella who arrives on the Greek island of Skios without the woman he is meant to be sharing a villa with (a villa, incidentally that belongs to his on-off again girlfriend’s friends) who he only met for five minutes in a bar while her boyfriend was out having a fag.

Friendless, address-less and lift-less, Oliver spots a woman at Arrivals holding a sign reading ‘Dr Norman Wildfred’ and decides to give this man’s life a whirl. The woman holding the sign is Nikki, the PA to the director of the Fred Toppler Foundation – essentially an academic holiday camp – who is at the airport to collect the organisation’s guest lecturer. The real Dr Norman Wildfred meanwhile is left to navigate Oliver’s chaotic life, which happily for the balding, overweight academic features lots of attractive young ladies. What follows is a catalogue of perfectly pitched and expertly plotted events that will either have you chuckling like a loon or groaning wearily at the whole silly mess.

Like the two taxi driving brothers who play pivotal roles in this comedy of errors, the pacy plot threatens to overturn on a few particularly sharp turns, but Frayn’s great skill is taking the ridiculous to a precipice only for him to steer this juggernaut of absurdity clear of a plot-cliff. Frayn is very much in charge of this story even if it feels that all these incredulous coincidences, unlikely connections and improbable timings are spinning out of his control.

Your enjoyment of Skios very much hinges on you not taking the characters too seriously. They are almost cartoon-like in their stupidity, vanity, arrogance and willingness to accept everything the way they want to see it. They don’t seem to be possessed of instinct or, for the most part, brains. In fact, they’re lumbered with very few characteristics, they are faint human sketches on which to hang a fun, farcical story on. And they wear it well.

by Suzanne Elliott