Posts Tagged ‘Tom Burke’

Mini-review – Reasons To Be Happy – Hampstead Theater

April 21, 2016

Since I enjoy Neil LaBute and had seen Reasons to be Pretty five years ago, it was a natural that I would make it to the Hampstead for his new play, Reasons to be Happy. It’s an update on the life of the four protagonists of Pretty, but something’s changed: LaBute’s energy has evaporated.

As a story, this show is almost as bland as a sitcom, but at the length of a rom com. The plebian nature of three of the protagonists – a hairdresser, a delivery driver, and a low-level manager at a “plant” – are as forward as they were before: they mock reading, worship sports, and dismiss both foreign cuisines and foreign cultures as equally weird and unnecessary. In fact, they’re so lowbrow that it’s a cause for comedy: certainly, when the one slightly educated character, Greg (Tom Burke), is asked, while holding a copy of something by Steinbeck, “Don’t you every read anything good?” the audience had a real laugh about it. I was nearly offended by LaBute’s slamming of the working class; it was barely forgivable because of his own nationality, but left me alternatingly cringing and wanting to run around apologizing to everyone in the audience.

With a bland plot interrupted by a nearly predictable surprise, we’re left primarily to enjoy the characters, who sadly suffer from LaBute’s failure to create more of a difference from the two female protagonists. Their embodiment of the nature of female friends in America is genuinely touching (as are Greg and Kent – Warren Brown – on the masculine side), but with Carly (Robyn Addison) and Steph (Lauren O’Neil) both blonde and slim, it became difficult to tell who was the violent one and who the pretty one (since this seemed to be the defining nature of each of their characters). All of the actors themselves seemed to be struggling with what to do with their characters as well, and the early scenes – late in the run – seemed clunky in a way that shouldn’t have happened if the actors really got who they were inhabiting. So … I found it uncompelling, despite the fact that the “big message” at the end of the play was one I agreed with. Overall, this seems a play well suited the Hampstead’s history of programming entertaining, unchallenging work that leave you with a few warm fuzzies but not a lot else at the end (other than the desire to pick up a few more good books).

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday April 13, 2016. It continues through April 23rd.)

Review – Reasons to Be Pretty – Almeida Theater

November 28, 2011

Neil LaBute has really been impressing me with his play writing style. From the first show of his I saw (Fat Pig) to In A Dark Dark House, he’s managed to capture both the natural way in which modern people speak and also the horrible way people lie to themselves and others. It the kind of conundrum I really like to watch play out on stage, and for this reason I was excited to see Reasons to Be Pretty when I saw it was coming to the Almeida.

Reasons to be Pretty is about a normal Joe (or Greg – Tom Burke) and the people he works with, and his attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of cross-gender communication. Or so I thought as the show started and Greg was going toe to toe with his girlfriend Steph (the amazing Sian Brooke), whom he has just vilely insulted. Or has he? When the words are finally extracted from his mouth – to much disgust from Steph – you have to wonder Just what is she flipping out about? or, alternately, How does he not get how offensive that was? Or, actually, you should be thinking both, wondering Why does that one sentence seem so different from opposite sides of the bedroom?

To be honest (although I loved the fight scene), I worried at this point that the play was going to be a big boring “And now the clumsy man learns to have some sympathy for poor little sensitive women with our horribly polluted brains” with a cutesy happy ending. This feeling was only compounded by the extreme asshattery of Greg’s best friend, an egotistical asshole who says one thing in front of his friend and another when is pregnant wife/girlfriend is around. Said wife (who works at the same place as the two men) is supposedly hot (which is why friend stays with her) but also appears stunningly ignorant and self-righteous. In fact, as a couple they’re two of the most unappealing characters I’ve seen on stage in ages. You can only assume they’re there as a foil for Greg’s “journey of self discovery,” although how he’s ever going to get a word of sympathy out of either of them is a mystery.

But LaBute doesn’t go for this obvious story. Instead, he starts digging much deeper, into the nature of friendship and the rules that tie people together. We also get a serious examination of the rules Greg has written for himself, and even though he comes off initially like a checked-out loser, when he gets to a crisis point (more than once!) where his values and his actions come into conflict, he manages to execute flying paradigm shifts that would do credit to a cat being dropped into a bathtub. You can practically see him morphing into a vertebrate mid-scene.

At the end of this show, I came away with two major wows (other than the fact it was overall awesome): the set, which was basically a rotating steel packing container with sides that flipped down to create different rooms; and Sian Brooke as an actress, who I’ve now seen in three productions in one year, two of which totally (and successfully) hung on her emotional range to convey a deeply troubled character. And there was a third minor wow: this show is the first time since I’ve been in England that I didn’t catch a single bobble in the accents of the characters. I was actually surprised to find they were all English – I thought the way they spoke was a bit stilted, but I thought it was because they were Californians trying to sound like they were from Jersey. In fact, the whole effect, of watching an American play set in America showing (not at their best) American people actually made me a bit homesick. On the other hand, I’m not the least bit sorry that I’m not having to come home to any of the characters this play was about; but the fact LaBute created four people who seemed real enough to have a life before and after the show (I wound up arguing about how Greg and Steph ever got together in the first place with the people I went with) is a sign of a really well-written show. It’s on for six more weeks; if you value new writing and solid story telling, go see it.

(This review is for a performance seen on Saturday, November 19th, 2011. Apparently there is a TV celebrity in the cast but as I did not recognize her when I was watching the show I’m not going to say who she was though she did a completely fine job in the role of “the pregnant girlfriend.” However, I feel like her casting is responsible for the show being substantially sold out so I’m going to try to encourage people to go because it’s an awesome show rather than feeding any further interest due to celeb casting. Also, while Siân Brooke is generally amazing, I think it’s time for her to play someone rich, or at least middle class, just for variety’s sake.)

Review – Creditors – The Donmar

October 22, 2008

It is not often that a night at the theater leaves me feeling a little breathless, but last night’s trip to the Donmar did – it was an outstanding combination of a powerful script, absorbing acting, and an environment intimate enough to make it all feel real. Creditors was fantastic. It’s hard to believe that before the show I was thinking about not going because I was so worn out!

I’ve never seen a play by Strindberg before, and the only way I can describe him is “like Pinter, only with all of the words.” There were only three characters – Tekla (Anna Chancellor), her husband Adolph (Tom Burke), and the mysterious Gustav (Owen Teale). The program notes advised us to see them not as characters, but rather as archetypes, which worked well – I was reminded of Albee’s Sandbox and of No Exit when observing their interactions, which seemed hyper-real, especially in the first scene, in which a mysterious man, Gustav (a doctor? a figment of the imagination), counsels Adolph about his life. He’s already convinced Adolphe that his artistic career is meaningless, then proceeds to completely and utterly tear him apart. How does he know so much about Adolph? How is he able to hone so perfectly into his weak spots? His knowledge of the man seemed unreal. Gustav was also possessed of an unbelievable misogynism. While I could believe the character could see a woman as “a blank page upon which the husband writes” (it seemed fairly typical of other 19th century drama, Ibsen in particular), his foray into the repulsion of women’s “hemorhaghing 13 weeks out of the year” and “having bodies that are that of a fatty, slovenly youth” (paraphrased) were just too much for me to digest. On the other hand, Adolphe’s nearly pornographic sculpture of his wife – on her back with her legs spread – was also just too much for me and made it hard to not burst out laughing. This was Adolphe’s ideal? He seemed to be rather humorously focused on her crotch. Ah, the Victorian psyche – who knows what made them tick!

As the play continues, we have Adolphe tear into Tekla, followed by Tekla and Gustav going at each other, and all of it ending in a glorious menage at the end – a wonderful celebration of the way human beings get to know each other so well through the bonds of love that they well and truly aquire the power and knowledge they need to completely destroy each other, mentally and physically. Chancellor is electric as Tekla, managing to be flirty, disgusted, loving, seductive, hateful, and very much her own woman throughout the show. Gustav seems rather a bit too mental … but provides a great foil for the rather evil (and certainly hateful) Adolphe. It all reminded me of Rosmersholme – and what a failure I consider that play to be, with its ultimately weak characters and over the top storyline. If only it had been as succinct as Creditors!

I was surprised to see the Donmar as sold out as ever for this evening and with standing room seats taken yet again – can this place ever produce a bomb? And who’d have suspected Alan Rickman of such directorial depths? For its 90 minute running time, it’s well worth standing through. That said, I must thank the West End Whingers for a heads up on getting tickets for this great show, which I consider to be the second best thing I’ve seen on stage this year. (Noel Cowards’ Brief Encounter is still my favorite, and it’s still running for a few more weeks – why not see them both?)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 28th. Creditors runs through November 15th.)