Review – Elixir

To the always intriguing The Space theatre in London’s Docklands for this tale of two English magicians – Dr John Dee and Edward Kelley – who find themselves employed in Prague in 1583 by Emperor Rudolph II with instructions to make/discover the elixir of youth. They are assisted, somewhat, by the doctor’s wife Jane and servant Eliska. Their rivals at court, who set out to undermine them in the eyes of the Emperor, are an astronomer and a Rabbi who have convinced the Emperor that they’ve made a Golem – by the simple subterfuge of disguising their servant Rachel.

The whole thing starts ominously enough with imposing Alex Robertson as Dr John Dee chanting incantations by the light of a single candle. He is interrupted by noises off, the lights come up and we are then introduced to a succession of ever more bizarre and outlandish characters. Whilst Dr Dee firmly believes in magic his alchemist assistant is far more open to playing on peoples’ credulity if the magic doesn’t appear to be working. Their two rivals at court (Christie Hawkins – who also wrote the piece – as the astronomer and Jamie Huxley as the rabbi) have long since decided that it’s best to impress the Emperor rather than risk upsetting him (and end up being executed) so always ensure a favourable outcome to their experiments by faking the results.

At this point we meet the Emperor himself, introduced by his fool who is played with great style by Johnny Orr who, the programme tells us, has only just completed his A-levels. The Emperor allows for  a wildly eccentric and physical performance by Oliver Gully, a cross between Richard III and Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby – and we change up a gear. From now on anything goes as the Emperor loses his patience and gives our two heroes until the next day to come up with the promised elixir of youth. The elixir is duly produced using some, shall we say highly personal ingredients, produced by the Doctor’s assistant, alchemist Edward Kelley – a hugely impressive professional debut by Daniel Richardson who looks good and acts and reacts with precision and confidence.

The whole thing becomes like a lost episode of Blackadder II – with Doctor Dee and his cohorts having to impress their monarch in order to avoid execution. A word too, at this point, about the costumes, (costume designer Lukas Smid) which really contribute to the sense of character and time.

My only minor gripe is that the various accents deployed can at times make it a little hard to hear every word clearly until you’re properly tuned in. But it’s real laugh out loud stuff with everyone giving their all, whether playing it straight or going where no actor has gone before. I still think Nigel Harman’s turn as Lord Farquar in Shrek the Musical is the funniest thing I’ve seen on stage, but Oliver Gully’s Emperor runs him a close second.

Elixir is at The Space until 26 August.

Review – The Ferryman

When it was announced that playwriting’s man of the moment, Jez Butterworth was bringing a new play,The Ferryman, to the Royal Court in 2017 I knew I had to get a ticket. However, foolishly I missed out on a chance during the original run so was delighted to snap one up for the Geilgud transfer.

The Ferryman carefully straddles the storylines of the close nit Carney family, in rural County Armagh and the international struggles of religion and the IRA in the early 1980s. The family farmhouse kitchen is centre stage, quite literally, and the Carney family’s personal relationships and troubles sit alongside their place in IRA recruitment, violent threats and protests, missing family members and unrelenting unrest.  

The stage is often filled with characters, so many you hardly can imagine where they’re all hiding. Each child actor is relaxed and delivers a spontaneous, natural performance – even the baby! The whole cast in fact is borderline faultless, and throughout the majority of the evening (it is an evening event, at 3 hours long) I entirely forgot I was watching a play and felt like I was peering through a crack in the curtains of the Carney farmhouse, watching everything unfold as harvest time came. Speaking of the harvest, as though a whole brood of children were not enough for the creative team to work with, look out for a live goose and live rabbit that crop up! 

Moments of humour, passion and love drift in and out of The Ferryman, whilst an overwhelming sense of fear and dread seep in slowly as the play goes on. With a compelling pace to his writing, Butterworth keeps you transfixed throughout the three hours, this is helped by the play being split into three hour-long sections giving it a very strong sense of structure. The set is beautiful, intensely detailed and a believable home for this vast family. 

If you have a chance to grab a ticket to The Ferryman whilst it is at The Geilgud I would absolutely recommend it. It is stirring, funny and thought provoking, everything you could need from a night at the theatre. 

Review – Beautiful Little Fools

Beautiful Little Fools is only on for two nights at The Cockpit in London’s Marylebone but deserves much more. The concept is that three young women find themselves imprisoned and then effectively brainwashed in Big Brother style to regard all outsiders as a danger and a threat. When a fourth young woman joins them their prejudices and nascent tribal instincts come to the fore.

With nods to TV’s Big Brother and ‘I’m A Celebrity…’ (not to mention Brexit and the Syrian crisis), Beautiful Little Fools differs in that there are no ‘challenges’ set by the producers (at least not until the ultimate challenge is issued at the end). In this version the inmates invent their own games and tortures, turning against each other rather than challenging the system that’s imprisoned them. I’ll say no more because that’s all you need to know. Just see it and let the drama happen in front of you.

It’s performed almost in the round at the Cockpit theatre, Marylebone, a classic studio theatre black-box space which is well used in this production. The pace is extremely well-judged and the events unfold unpredictably, leading to a genuine frisson of tension in the room. The piece makes excellent use of movement and sound. The voice of ‘Big Brother’ is especially effective and the involuntary ‘dance’ of the inmates quite unnerving. It’s gripping, at times funny (as all good theatre should be, in my view), and genuinely captivating throughout.

It’s written by Jemma Burgess who also stars and is the founder of Optic Theatre Company whose production this is. The three others in the cast (Sophia Hannides, Isabel Goldby-Briggs and Jessica Collins – getting the laughs) are all really committed and convincing in their different characters. And at just an hour’s running time it doesn’t outstay its welcome, leaving you wanting more.

I must conclude with a mention of the Cockpit Theatre. As I said earlier, it’s an intimate studio space and I must say again, as I’ve done in previous reviews, that if you’ve confined yourself to the West End spectaculars you really should try intimate venues like this, with close-up performances from talented casts. It really shows what theatre can do like nothing else. Combined with a welcoming bar and foyer with a distinct student union vibe (circa 1978 I should say) this is a really great place to go.

Review – Apologia

Stockard Channing’s name on the bill is reason enough to go to the theatre. Since her stand-out performance in Grease she’s clearly been a force to be reckoned with. Her latest role as political activist, matriarch and academic Kristin in Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia plays to what we think we know of her, even if that is based solely on her portrayal of Rizzo. Kristin is strong-willed, supremely confident in her own insights and always ready to speak her mind.

On the face of it a play set at a middle class dinner party (albeit taking place in the presence of the kitchen sink) discussing political activism and art may be seem a little too focused on the problems of the liberal elite. We are all invited to laugh with Kristin as she witheringly puts down some easy targets – in turn her banker son, his too-keen-to-please American girlfriend, and her other son’s apparently shallow soap actress girlfriend. But we discover as the evening progresses that Kristin’s hard-as-nails approach to life is protecting her from an unpalatable memory of how she lost her sons when they were young.

We view this as a painting, the intricately designed and dressed kitchen (set design by Soutra Gilmour) being set in a giant rectangular picture frame. Nearly all the lines of the set are straight. It’s a series of rectangles – the chairs, the table, windows – even the floor tiles. And the table is positioned across the stage so we view it as we view Leonardo’s Last Supper – surely a deliberately ironic dig at Kristen’s defiantly anti-Christian views.

There are plenty of un-forced laughs throughout the piece and Channing knows exactly how to play her lines, looks and moves to make the most of every opportunity. But this is truly an ensemble effort with robust, convincing and detailed performances across the board. Laura Carmichael quickly dispels all memories of her Downton history as an American born-again Christian; Joseph Millson plays both of Kristen’s sons and brings such clarity and distinction to each that only a glance at the programme reveals it’s the same actor; Freema Agyeman has a ball in her first stage role as a soap star trying (and succeeding) to convince herself of the value of her work; and Desmond Barrit as camp neighbour Hugh revels in the many comic lines his part offers, but never at the expense of conveying the honesty and warmth of his character.

Apologia is at the Trafalgar Studios until 18 November 2017.