Posts Tagged ‘Jermyn Street Theatre’

Review – Original Death Rabbit – Jermyn Street Theatre

January 16, 2019

Technology, and how we deal with it, is one of my favorite topics for plays and for new writing. As human beings, we’ve gone well beyond letters and even phone calls; theater has struggled to keep up with the rapid changes in how we communicate with each other. Plays are, at their core, about dialogue; but these days, we talk to each other with text messages, with instant messages, with comments on posts, and with emojis, memes, and captioned photos. None of these translate well to the stage. But what does, and should, is how these changes are affecting us as people and as a society – what does having a thousand different ways to communicate with each other (and often with strangers) do to individuals. And this is what Rose Heiney’s play Original Death Rabbit is about – how life as lived partially on the internet is changing us.

Kimberley Nixon in the Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre - photo by Robert Workman

Kimberley Nixon in the Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre – photo by Robert Workman


Original Death Rabbit is the online handle of a young woman who briefly shot to fame as the originator of an online meme, a la the “icebucket challenge” or “planking.” A photo was taken of her wearing a pink bunny onesie at a funeral and it became an internet craze – taking pictures of yourself (or others) at inappropriate places wearing the same thing. But like any person who gets five minutes of fame, there’s a lot more to ODR than the moment she was caught hiding in a cemetery or when the paps finally found her on the doorstep of her apartment. ODR is a young woman with mental health issues, who comes from a family with mental health issues, who finds that with an unrelenting spotlight on her she is more inclined than ever to not leave the house and to spend her time on online forums and trolling her top enemy on Twitter. Her depiction of a life lived in a tiny flat, only communicating via text, seems remarkably acccurate and depressing – a good reason to unplug forever and force yourself to get back to face to face communication.

The whole thing is done as a monologue by Kimberley Nixon – an impressive feat, and one she carries off with complete self assurance. It’s easy to imagine ODR and Nixon herself as being spoiled, self-obsessed, insecure, raging, and able to completely lose herself in poetry – Nixon wraps the character around herself so much that she disappears, and I found myself lost in the “maze of twisted passages all alike” that is ODR’s brain. How had she become so broken? Why wasn’t she trying to save herself?

Original Death Rabbit is a tightly woven portrait of a person who is allowed to further withdraw into mental illness in a world where it can be hard to tell when people are hiding and when, in fact, they are in danger. That said, I found myself torn between wanting to shout, “Get over yourself!” to the character, to wanting to call the author and ask her to give ODR a little something to make her a bit more well-rounded. Dealing with your own and a family’s mental illness gives an author (and an audience) a lot of material to work with, but having all of a story be told as a video being made for YouTube – or perhaps an extended blog post – is just not quite enough to make me care about the person on stage, or her family. I wanted to see more, to go deeper, to know that the bullshit happy happy faces people put up on social media are very much not representative of the struggles that are happening below – because ODR’s struggles never seemed to get to that key nerve I wanted to get. Still, it’s worth seeing if you want to see theater that’s engaging with the effect of technology on our lives – the topic has much to offer.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 15, 2019. It continues through February 9th.)

Advertisements

Review – Burke and Hare – Jermyn Street Theatre

December 3, 2018

In a completely genius move of counter-programming, Jermyn Street have chosen to stage a most unusual Christmas show: a celebration of two 19th century Scottish grave robbers, completely with jolly songs, bad jokes, and on stage corpsing of the most literal sort. With three actors playing more roles than I could count (yet all nicely delineated by clothing and accent), the night moved at a whirlwind pace, barely seeming to leave the central room at the lodging house where Mr Hare (Alex Parry) lives along with his wife, the proprietor (Katy Daghorn). Burke (Hayden Wood) shows up, short of cash, but willing to work; and when a chance comes to sort a dead lodger’s debt by selling off his corpse, Burke shows little shyness in joining in the Hares’ plans.

The particular genius of this show is how so few actors in such a tiny space manage to do so much, conveying the back alleys of Edinburgh, the blood-splashed lecture halls of the cadaver-hungry doctors, and the heave and squalor of a rooming house not of the highest class. Much credit for this no doubt must go to director Abigail Pickard Price and designer Toots Butcher; Jermyn Street is very much an intimate theater but they created a space that felt far larger. And the comedy was right on target – black at times but full of silliness especially as the various actors attempted to compensate for the shortage of bodies to fill the roles (see what I did there?).

Burke and Hare, full cast – Hayden Wood, Alex Parry, and Katy Daghorn. Photo by Philip Tull.


My worry was that this story would completely descent to goriness, given that I’m fairly phobic about blood, but most of the spare body parts were so silly that I couldn’t have been the least bit frightened; and there was, in the end, only one murder scene, played toward then end and actually quite moving. If you add in the fact that the corpse on stage the longest appeared to be giggling under her sheet, the overall effect was leavened with enough humor – gallows humor, shall we say – that I was able to make it through the entire play without getting creeped out.

While Burke and Hare is not going to be stealing punters away from the Palladium panto, pretty much every theater goer in town is going to want a break from endless helpings of treacle and mince pies, and this show is just right for us – zippy, fun, tightly performed, and with enough of a feeling of improv that every night should feel fresh – just like the corpses.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place Friday, November 30, 2018. It continues through December 21st.)

Review – The Play About My Dad – Jermyn Street Theater

July 10, 2018

With daily headlines about the youth sports team trapped in a cave in Thailand, Monday night seemed perfect timing to be watching a play about the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of residents of Missippi. Spun out amongst three groups of people as the moment of crisis approached and the tension ratcheted, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Floyd Collins, the musical about the man trapped in a cave in 1930s Kentucky. Would htey live? Would they die? The four families Boo Killebrew chose to show us were unknowns, all potential members of the class of 1836 people killed in this murderous storm. It made for riveting viewing. Who would make it out alive?

Killebrew chose an intriguing framing device, of putting herself and her father Larry (David Shaal) as characters in the play, so that she could write about the process of writing and creating in a meta-theatrical way, as well as exploring their relationship. Larry the character is thus able to speak about what Larry Killebrew saw, as a doctor at a hospital, and about his relationship with Boo (Hannah Britland) and about the writing process in general. Killebrew then adds some people she knew less well as characters (specifically Kenny Tyson – Ammar Duffus – an ambulance driver, and Essie Watson – Miquel Brown – Dad Killebrew’s babysitter from way back when), and then four other people, a family and another EMT, to round out the stories. But Killebrew herself was not there, which is a bit of a shame. That said, I was torn between finding the use of her insertion of herself as playwright into the narrative irritating, as it introduced a lot of superfluous dialogue, and finding it fascinating, because, well, I too write plays, and I found the discussions of her technique very, very interesting – so interesting it distracted me from the actual narratives she had created.

Still, it was the topic of Hurricane Katrina that drew me to this show. I don’t often get to see plays about recent American history – that is, anything less than a hundred years old – so this attempt to wade into the muck of this shameful catastrophe was square center in my mind’s eye. How would a play about Katrina spin out? How much focus would we get on the woeful response of people on the ground? How much on the disproportionate effect of the hurricane on the black and elderly? Would we look at the policemen that refused to let black citizens drive out of New Orleans? Would we look at the causes of the disaster?

In short, no, we did not. We heard three tales of people who mostly fatally affected by the storm. We struggled with them as they attempted to deal with the fact the waters were rising so high that they were likely to wind up drowned; we wondered why they did not leave when the danger of staying was clear. And side by side with their stories we hear the story of Boo Killebrew struggling with her father leaving his family (Boo and her mom), and the fear she felt when their car ran out of gas during a storm, and a little bit about what was happening and Larry Killebrew’s hospital during and after the storm.

But some very big questions aren’t answered. And, for me very oddly in a play set in the South, we have no discussion or examination of racial interactions, and, rather worse I think, no examination of the impact of poverty on people’s outcomes. So many people who couldn’t swim; so many people who couldn’t drive away; so many people that weren’t able to keep up their houses; so many people afraid of what missing three days of work would do to them. And alongside it we have two well to do white people whose concerns during the storm were buying a dress and getting phone service again. In the end, it felt like there were two entirely different stories being told – one about Hurricane Katrina, and one about a father/daughter relationship – but by blending them together, Killebrew makes it look like she is exploiting other people’s suffering without really understanding it, and trying to equate her emotional experience with people actually dying. The net effect is to pollute both stories. The people who die are just backdrop to a family drama, but in fact theirs is the real drama. There are some good threads going here and some good roles for non-white actors – a pleasure to see in London to be sure – but it would be better to see this done as “The Play About Katrina” and “The Play About My Dad,” so the issues in each play could be focused on appropriately without one trivializing the other. The story of Kenny Tyson dealing with his mother’s loss and being able to see the past and the future is interesting enough to carry its own play; I’d love to see him, and the other working class and poor people of The Play About My Dad, brought front and center with their own play. Still, it was nice to see recent, and important, US history put on stage, and brilliant to get to see the people from the South shown as just typical folks holding down jobs and looking after their families. I look forward to seeing how Killebrew’s work develops as she matures.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 9, 2018. It continues through July 21st.)

Review – Pride and Prejudice – Two Bits Classics at Jermyn Street Theater

December 4, 2016

The thought of two people acting all of Pride and Prejudice seems farcical at the outset, more so when I realized that it was to be a man and a woman. I mean, just look at Elizabeth Bennet’s family! She’s one of five daughters, and in her whole household there is only one man AND SIX WOMEN! And, frankly, Mr Darcy isn’t around nearly enough to justify an entire man in the cast – at least two thirds of the characters are female! But there I was, at Jermyn Street, waiting to see what had been created and, honestly, hoping for the best.

Fortunately, while Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood do stick to playing the two leads, Elizabeth and Darcy (and in the appropriate gender), the choice of genders for the various other parts is surprisingly more varied than I expected. Mr and Mrs Bennet are as expected – Underwood with a pipe and Tincey rather frequently twirling a hanky (and talking in a very comic accent) – but there is quite a bit of variety into the casting otherwise, rather sensibly as the various characters tend to appear in pairs, Darcy himself being frequently seen with Mr Bingley, and the youngest Bennet sisters being somewhat attached at the hip. There is no doubt that Mr Underwood is extraordinarily flexible with his portrayal of the female roles. And, to my surprise, so is Ms Tincey as a man (whipping aside her skirt to show trousers). You cannot help but be somewhat astounded at what a rich job they have done at making these many characters come to life, with only the tiny bit of waffling (the middle sister who only ever gets to be a music stand; an occasional chair that is supposed to be occupied).

Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey - photo courtesy Carrie Johnson

Jane Bennet (left) and Caroline Bingley (with fan) – Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey – photo courtesy Carrie Johnson


So we’ve established that there’s much of a to-do with the actors popping on hats, picking up pipes, or carefully arranging a sash to give a military air. Despite this, the production as a whole has a feeling of carefully controlled simplicity, with only picture rails, a half-window, some boxes and a fireplace serving to recreate one after another interior scene (of people in widely varying circumstances) and, indeed, even the outdoors (as Elizabeth takes her many walks). All of the richness is provided by the glorious words of Jane Austen and the highly memorable characters she created, who quickly became who I saw on stage as the scene required – the brash and stupid Lydia, grasping and shallow Mrs Bennet, formal and gentle Jane. What an accomplishment! And what a very good evening at the theater – it was a longish show but time positively raced by. Like the works of Jane Austen, this feels like a play one could see again and again – a classic performed with bravura and so, so much comedy. It’s delicious counter-programming for the festive season as well. Well done, all!

(This review is for the opening night performance which took place on Thursday, December 1st. It continues through Decmeber 21st.)

Review – I Loved Lucy – Jermyn Street Theater

April 10, 2016

It’s really interesting to think that thousands of more people are going to see Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum than will make it to Jermyn Street to see a far more realistic version of the same story. Although I Loved Lucy is sold as “what it was like to be with Lucy,” it’s really a more universal story of fame, adoration, loneliness, and dependency.

Set in (mostly) the late 70s and 80s, I Loved Lucy is the story of … well, in the real world it’s the story of a gay writer, Lee Tannen (Stefan Menaul), who becomes close friends with Lucille Ball (Sandra Dickinson) at the end of her life, then goes on to write a play about it that is called I Loved Lucy. Rather than being “based on real life events,” it is supposed to be biographical and truly real, meaning that if you’re a fan of Lucille Ball this is the theatrical experience you’ve been waiting for your entire life. The show is crammed full of detail – of clothing, friendships, gossip, and day to day minutiae – that makes it fantastic as a window into the life of a celebrity.

But … what if you don’t want to see a show about an actress who died almost thirty years ago? What if you’re not familiar with her work? What if … you didn’t love Lucille Ball? (And, gasp, what if this “warts and all” portrayal isn’t entirely true? Most biographies skip some stuff as too personal – sometimes to flatter the writer, sometimes to flatter the subject.) So let’s step back from this show as being very specifically about one actress and look at it as a story. I Loved Lucy, is, in an odd way, an inside-out Sunset Boulevard, taking a few of its ingredients – a star struck younger man, a fading actress with a strong personality – and then flipping them like a pancake, adding a strong dose of Hollywood Babylon (the celebrity dish is pretty yummy) but then making the story of loneliness, dependency and the difficulties of figuring out how to handle the inevitability of aging and death. With a gay man as the lead and a compelling actress standing in the role of a woman who despairs of never again getting to act. It’s a realistic and very human story that transcends its specificity (backgammon games, lynx fur coats) to hit universal notes of what it’s like to be a strong woman, how it felt to be a cog in an industry, and how to be close to someone at the end of their life.

I found myself also thinking of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where nearly a chapter is devoted to the death of the narrator’s grandmother – a woman I had spent hundreds of pages getting to know. The author created a relationship for me, and then he took it away, and watching it happen hurt. Even though we all know death is going to come, it’s still painful, but, in the case of this play as in the case of Proust, going along with these old people on that journey is a wonderful thing – a little more wonderful in that this bit of writing has a good lesson in how to be a friend to someone late in life. I loved it for that. And with such fine performances – Sandra Dickinson has a far more nuanced character to play than Glenn Close does, and I can hardly think of a richer role for an older actress – well, this is an example of jewelbox London theater at its best.

(This review is for the opening night performance of the second run of I Loved Lucy, which took place on Friday, April 8, 2016. It continues through April 23rd.)

Review – The White Carnation – Troupe at the Jermyn Street Theater

February 13, 2014

After watching the transfer production of The White Carnation at Jermyn Street, I had this sudden vision of what it was I had just seen: comfort theater. Do you want to see a show in which people don’t deal with really difficult issues, a show with an upbeat ending, a show in which most of the people are comic caricatures of actual human beings, a show with a fair amount of laughs that sends you home feeling warm and fuzzy? Well, The White Carnation is just the play for you. As the lights came up and I looked over the sea of well dressed, gray haired attendees at the first night of this show’s transfer from the Finborough, I felt that in no way was anyone wanting a night that would be mentally/emotionally/physically taxing.

And that’s exactly what The White Carnation delivers. It’s a ghost story, but a comedy; a comedy with a vicar (Benjamin Whitrow, spotless) making jokes about how wrong it would be for a Catholic to try to exorcise a ghost that had been Church of England when alive: a comedy in which civil servants (Phillip York, a bit heavy handed) and town councilmen go wild trying to figure out how law applies to the walking dead; a play in which a policeman (Thomas Richardson, really laying it on) feels free to try to convince someone he’s guarding that they should go into business together. It’s not really a farce, per se, but a play in which British stereotypes and British bureaucracy are given a platform to play freely and the audience is allowed to have a good laugh. I had actually been expecting something quite creepy and disturbing, like An Inspector Calls or The Woman in White, but instead I actually had quite a few good laughs (I know, finally a comedy that I actually enjoy, it had been ages!).

Now, I can’t fault the performance of Michael Praed as the lead character, John Greenwood – he seemed seamlessly to be what he was meant to be, a rich man who was very focused on money and a bit of a bully – but so many of the rest of the actors seemed so cardboardy. I couldn’t feel it was much their fault (as it was a transfer, I expect they were pretty settled in their roles) as it just seemed that it’s how they were written – Sherriff wasn’t intending on pushing his audience, he wanted to please them.

But, you know, The White Carnation did what it said on the tin, and I did managed to be both surprised and a little teary at the ending. You may not have seen it before, so I’ve tried to be obscure about the plot points; but if you want to be lightly entertained, this play (and production) will certainly deliver. Otherwise, for about the same price you can see a trio of Samuel Becket plays across the West End at the Duchess. (I preferred it but frankly I don’t want to have exotic small plates for dinner every night; sometimes a Sunday roast is really what the doctor ordered.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 5th. It continues through February 22nd.)