London Town and Theatre Reviews

Last week I took a trip to London for both work (archive visiting) and pleasure (theatre viewing) is it wrong or odd that those tags are both interchangeable to me?
Anyway a good time was had by all (I think) we learned much in the archive, including that prompt scripts are a bitch to transcribe (actually I knew that already) even researchers at the National Theatre use Wikipedia,  and a good deal about Benedict Cumberbatch, a dressing gown and a skipping rope that it would be unprofessional to share here.
On the pleasure side, we also learned much.  A song about Maggie Thatcher can be fun, that in a Travelodge my archive partner will always find porn on the TV,  that another friend will accidentally take you on a tour of film locations-including that of a certain dominatrix, it is possible to make geek references and dirty comments out of anything (and often simultaneously)  and possibly  found the secret to rendering me speechless (it involves a Pret a Manger and a minor celebrity).
Billy Elliot
I resisted this for a long time, thinking that a musical couldn’t do justice to the gritty historical backdrop of the original film. Also anything that becomes incredibly commercially popular in the West End usually sends me running for the hills. Anyway long story short I saw it in New York last year and despite some dreadful accents, it was wonderful. So when the archive companion wanted to see this I agreed.
Despite being open for several years now Billy in the West end isn’t tired looking like most long-running shows. Perhaps the turnover of child actors actually helps this. Ah yes, child actors, another thing that normally sends me running for the hills. This lot however were pretty good, nobody who you wanted to a) slap or b) well slap. It’s not politically correct, so sue me that’s what I normally want to do to a gaggle of stage school brats on stage. It’s a challenge to find an actor who can sing/act and dance to play Billy. Ours was a decent actor, a passable singer and as a dancer a brilliant tapper and contemporary dancer, his ballet was decent (far better than I could do clearly but I’m being critical here). In terms of performance the family dynamic within the Elliot clan really came across and his brother’s emotional outburst nearly brought me to tears.
What comes across most in Billy Elliot is the staging, hats off to Stephen Daldry this is possibly his best work.  For me this is summarised best by the number ‘Solidarity’ where a children’s ballet class meets a police/strikers standoff. The brilliantly exectuted musical and dance numbers that show how Billy’s passion and talent develop alongside the gritty reality of the 1980s is something worth seeing and worth saying.
It struck us both that seeing Billy Elliot now, rather than in the midst of the Blair Labour years when the film and musical were originally produced adds another dimension and certainly makes both worth a re-visit.
Billy Elliot also contains two of the best lines I’ve heard in a long time ‘You look like a spastic starfish’ and ‘Yer Dad’s as pissed as a platypus’
Mike Bartlett
National Theatre (Olivier)
Mike Bartlett’s new play at the National was the original reason for this trip (ahem I mean it was for work, all for research) I was very excited about this and overall I wasn’t disappointed.
First of all this is how you use the National’s Olivier theatre, and the drum revolve (well at least in the first act) an ominous cube of grey and black spinning in the centre of the stage formed the main set. It because part of but also remained a dark looking force outside of the action, perhaps reminiscent of the shared nightmares the characters in the play have.
The first act tells a sweeping story across the character’s lives, some of whom intersect some don’t-Bartlett thankfully stays away from attempting to tie everyone’s lives too neatly together and the connections are real and believable and also forward the action. Set in a dystopian alternate version of our own world, eerily similar with a Conservative (female) Prime Minister who claims to be different from her party and a looming war with Iran, despite the surreal Bartlett twists this is a very recognisable world.  The combination of clever writing and a stunningly directed first half that used set, movement and music brilliantly-I never thought I’d commend the use of a Rhianna song but I do! The first act builds up to an exciting climax that led us all chomping at the bit for more.
The second act, while a bit strong to say it was a letdown or failure is not as strong. Momentum is lost by an overlong discussion between three key players, which while filled with interesting ideas loses the audience about midway. The second act was redeemed by a brilliantly executed and moving conclusion, the mere sight of the solider in uniform hits the audience with perhaps the true message of the play without having to say a word. The words the other characters say bring back the scope and momentum of the first act enough to redeem a sagging mid point.
The Haunted Child
Joe Penhall
The Royal Court
This play at the Royal Court is the microcosm to Bartlett’s macro in Thirteen. Telling the story of one family dealing with the fallout of modern life, or more accurately falling apart from it. A small scale story set in a living room of a family as the father returns after running away to join-for want of a better word-a cult. As he unravels at home he takes his family and the audience with him.
It’s a credit to the writing that we see clearly the point of view of everyone at one point in the play-from the child who wonders where his Dad has gone, to the wife trying to make sense of the man who comes home, to the man who has been away, who thinks’ he’s found the answers and can’t understand why his family don’t see what he does. That we just for a moment think that he’s right, that perhaps we should join his group illustrates just how on the pulse the play is here. We may not agree with the character’s choices or how the writer chooses to end it, but we certainly recognise their world.
It was a definite plus seeing this the day after 13, pulling back those massive sweeping political ideas to the absolute grass roots, the point at which we experience them certainly left me thinking. The skilful writing and directing that I’d expect from the Royal Court also left me inspired.
So that’s the latest shot of London theatre! On to the next…..

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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