Off West End
**** (4 Stars)
Unicorn Theatre, London - Tuesday 25 March, 2014
Engaging and inspiring, this play keeps the audience captivated from beginning to end, following the journey of ‘the Boy’ and his toy velveteen rabbit. This simply structured storyline keeps not only children in the audience engaged, but adults too. Their relationship is tested and trialled through thick and thin, including when ‘the Boy’ suffers from scarlet fever and also as the velveteen rabbit has doubts over what is real, and what is only child’s play.
The minimal use of dialogue captures the Boy’s ‘Toy Story-esque’ world, allowing the audience to be captivated by the physical theatre used. There are some marvellously magical moments between the two flawless actors, Christian Roe and Syrus Lowe. Roe’s Stanislavski-style rabbit was faultless as he exerts such truth behind his eyes. His Benedict Cumberbatch / Arthur Darvill ‘vibe’ and highly expressive face really made him stand out as an actor to watch for the future.
Wilkie Branson’s choreography is an absolute joy to watch and captures the childish snapshot well. I really savour Purni Morell’s overall direction as I feel his interpretation is stimulating and inventive. The simple props are used imaginatively and are thoroughly believable, as one of the younger audience members demonstrated, as they questioned rather loudly, mid-scene, ‘Is that a real fire?!’
I feel over all, this production is cleverly designed, created and performed and will be appreciated by all ages, as within this elegantly simple piece, there are definitely a variety of relatable levels. Although the start drags on slightly, children will enjoy the visual excitement, whereas adults have a chance to escape back to their childhoods.
So find out for yourself whether the velveteen rabbit is real, or simply just a toy...
The Velveteen Rabbit is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until April 19. All the info is here: https://www.unicorntheatre.com/the-velveteen-rabbit
***** (5 Stars)
Finborough Theatre - 28 March, 2014
Émile Zola’s 1867 novel is drastically re-imagined by Nona Shepphard and Craig Adams at the Finborough Theatre with breathtaking brilliance.
The story centres on a young woman, Thérèse Raquin (Julie Atherton), who’s stuck in a life of misery and disappointment. Forced by her aunt (Tara Hugo) to marry her cousin Camille (Jeremy Legat), Thérèse begins a lustful affair with Camille’s schoolfriend Laurent (Ben Lewis). After drowning Camille on a boating trip, Thérèse and Laurent are consumed by guilt and we see their relationship, now fuelled by torment and hate, slowly reach its inevitable end.
Thérèse Raquin is a truly remarkable piece of theatre. This dark, brutal exploration of the animalistic tendencies of human nature is brought to life by Craig Adams’ complex score, which wonderfully utilises haunting melodies and rich harmonies to pack an emotional punch.
The musical unpredictability is striking: sharp, unnerving dissonance is followed by sensual harmonies from the 'River Women' that are reminiscent of something more accustomed to Destiny's Child. (Spine-tinglingly brilliant.) It's remarkably effective and, for me, the little runs and riffs give a story rooted in 19th-century Paris a hint of modernity and a new lease of life.
Refreshingly, there isn't the typical '11 o'clock number' that we're all so used to, that's not what Thérèse Raquin is about. It's an ensemble piece that deals with the social constraints of the 19th century, highlighted by the mundane, almost robotic, life of Thérèse's contemporaries.
It's a far cry from the naturalistic ethos of Zola's work, but Shepphard's book captures his scientific tone nevertheless with physiological references woven throughout: the piece opens with the ensemble singing, “Blood and nerves/Blood and nerves" (serving as just one of many possible examples).
Laura Cordery's design evokes the murky backstreets of 19th-century Paris whilst also conveying the blandness of Thérèse's life. Dark wooden beams fill the small acting space, littered with secret spaces for the cast to meander through. Shepphard's production could perhaps be sharper as things seem to wander in the second act, however this is me actively looking for something to criticise - it's a near-perfect piece of storytelling.
It must be said that the talent on show is phenomenal with the cast working seamlessly to bring this story to life. Atherton's turn in the title role is captivating. She doesn't speak for the majority for the first act, but she doesn't need to. Her eyes convey the pain and stifling boredom more than any words could. Furthermore, her frustration and claustrophobia resonate on a personal level as anyone who has moved back home after university can relate to the suffocation and yearning for freedom so felt by Thérèse.
Tara Hugo's heartbreaking portrayal as the well-intentioned but deeply selfish aunt is stunning. Although Hugo is perhaps not the strongest singer, there's enough emotion and depth in her performance for it not to matter; the image of her paralysed in a chair, vacantly staring out over the audience is chilling. Ben Lewis and Jeremy Legat are both consummate performers, the former being the rugged alpha-male with a powerhouse of a voice and the latter providing a great deal of humour.
Quite simply, Thérèse Raquin is fantastic. Emotive, powerful and dark, a must-see.
Thérèse Raquin will transfer from the Finborough to the Park Theatre from Wednesday 30 July to 24 August, 2014. Buy your tickets here: http://www.parktheatre.co.uk/
**** (4 Stars)
Richmond Theatre - Monday 24 March, 2014
First premiered in 1945, British classic post-war play See How They Run returns to theatre almost 70 years later produced by the newly-formed Reduced Heights Theatre Company, run by television and film actor, Warwick Davis.
The play still remains very farcical with a lightning quick pace from start to finish, filled with slap-stick elements that are perfectively timed, coupled with an array of dead-pan punchlines, which keeps the laughter soaring throughout. The cast may all be of reduced height but their energy levels and their ability to deliver fast and snappy gags was of a high standard.
Davis plays the unfortunate Reverend Lionel Toop who is challenged by characters Lance-Corporal Clive Winton played by Phil Holden, Reverend Arthur Humphrey played by Jamie John and the intruder played by Raymond Griffiths, which all played a big part in the chaotic elements of the play. Other characters include Lionel’s wife, Penelope, played by Rachel Denning and The Bishop of Lax played by Jon Key who were the less farcical and more serious characters of play that frequently delivered impeccably timed, dry-humoured punchlines keeping the show more grounded. Penelope goes up against a loud and energetic maid called Ida and a posh, elegant Miss Skillon who were all integrated into the silliness of the story successfully with their own comical mishaps.
See How They Run is currently on tour around the UK. Details here: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/see-how-they-run/richmond-theatre/
Richmond Theatre, London - Monday 17 March, 2014
The Two Worlds of Charlie F. is a rich tapestry of stories told by war veterans about their experiences of fighting in Afghanistan. Originally created as a rehabilitation programme for wounded, injured and sick (WIS) soldiers, Stephen Rayne's production was performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in 2012 and is now receiving a wider audience as it goes on tour.
As such, it feels wrong to give this piece a 'star rating' as that is not what it's for.
It offers an insight into what life is like for disabled soldiers and is open and honest. Whilst it felt a little one-side at times, this an important piece in understanding that the conflict lasts long after a soldier returns from war.
There is a clever combination of music, dance and song, which allows the soldiers to express themselves in various ways and they work really well together. There is a strong sense of camaraderie, obviously gained through working with each other for such a long period of time.
The Two Worlds of Charlie F. is playing around the UK. Details here: http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/the-two-worlds-of-charlie-f/
* (1 star)
Landor Theatre - Thursday 13 March, 2014
There have been countless adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 chiller “The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde”, and perhaps most famously for the stage is Frank Wildhorn’s 1997 Broadway show Jekyll & Hyde (check out the song ‘This is the Moment’).
The Man Inside is a new chamber musical from Tony Rees and Gary Young with additional material from the show’s star Dave Willetts. This classic story touches on issues of morality as we see the ‘good’ Dr Jekyll battle with his alter-ego, the ‘bad’ Mister Hyde. Unlike the novel, this version doesn’t include the main character Gabriel John Utterson and insteads tells the story from the perspective of Dr Jekyll.
This small production needs a lot of work if it ever wants a life outside of the Landor Theatre (an intimate pub theatre in Clapham). Rees’ highly-repetitive score lacks the drama and excitement needed to keep audiences’ attention. It’s a shame because the source material is so fascinating. Important elements are glossed over or unexplored and the irritatingly-weak script is riddled with clichés - particularly the ending, which is a failed attempt to shock.
Not even West End stalwart Willetts can save this production, and his performance is largely unimpressive - merely utilising a rough vibrato when playing Hyde. There’s a peculiar stage dynamic between the three performers who just don’t work well together: it all feels awkward and forced.
The strange lighting choices coupled with the over-excessive smoke machine make the production feel like an episode of Stars in Their Eyes rather than the dark exploration of human nature that it should be.
Ultimately, for me, The Man Inside is one big disappointment that appears to be beyond any form of redemption.
The Man Inside is playing at the Landor Theatre until 29 March.