Heresy & Witticism – “Wittenberg” @ The Gate Theatre 4*

David Davalos’ Wittenberg centres around whether “to believe or not to believe” with undecided scholar Prince Hamlet in the crossfire of wits as Theology lecturer Martin Luther and Philosopher Dr Faustus go head to head arguing the case of religion against humanism.

Luther (Andrew Frame), Hamlet (Edward Franklin) and Dr. Faustus (Sean Campion) – Photo Tristram Kenton

The tug of war between colleagues on matters of faith versus philosophy is earnest and entertaining –Sean Campion’s Faustus declaring the Bible a source of answers for Theologians and questions for Philosophers.  The pub-crooning Faustus – twice a week at the Bunghole – mixes philosophy, medicine and women in his bon-vivant approach to life taking evident pleasure in the needling of the intensely devout and dour Luther (Andrew Frame).

Faustus Entertains – Photo Simon Kane

Davalos’ play sees Hamlet’s mental house thrown in to disarray not by scheming relatives but by an inability to reconcile Corpenicus’ theory of the sun at the centre of the solar system against religious teachings.  The tattered tennis playing undergrad (Edward Franklin) is unable to square hierarchical faith against scientific proof yet it is Luther’s own doubts about Rome that are at the true heart of the production.

Frame, Sophie Brittain as The Eternal Feminine” and Campion – photo Simon Kane

Rome grows wealthy through the sale of forgiveness leaving Luther struggling with his beliefs and loyalty to the papacy.  Staunch faith and argumentative intellect are crippled by the self -serving financial objectives of the Vatican opposition to which is sacrilege.  These weaknesses are seized upon by the mocking Faustus who accuses Luther of “abandoning the patient for the cancer” it is game on between the two worthy opponents.  The debate between Faustus and Luther is bawdy, inflammatory, the perfect storm of animosity and grudging respect as the actors deliver fiesty performances.  The production comes into its own during these sequence as Frame & Campion ignite a drolly feverish battle of wills and wit. Humours needling and hot tempers flare

The play, peppered with so many literary references, verges on coy yet Christopher Haydon stages a spirited UK premier that is never bogged down by its own cleverness. This Gate production is a thinking man’s affair wrapped in a cloak of hilarity.  Come for lascivious pub crooning, lap up the “brau” fuelled debates and prepare for the cold winds wrought by the choices of men.

Until 1 October 2011
Gate Theatre
11 Pembridge Road
London W11 3HQ

Frozen Moment at the Etcetera Theatre, Camden Town

Up and coming writers show off their work at the annual Camden Fringe Festival this August and Bradley Middleton steals the show with ‘Katherine: a short life’, the story of a 20 something’s suicide and the reaction it generates.

Starting at the end with Katherine’s alcoholic demise, the fast-moving play captures the range and depth of responses to the life and death of a young woman.

The sharpness of Middleton’s writing is matched by the outstanding performance of Molly Harris as Katherine. With unpretentious subtlety neither the writer nor the lead actress allow the audience to fully grasp who Katherine is, instead her innocence and complexity give way to depression and confusion, most disturbingly expressed as a humiliating verbal and physical attack on her domineering boyfriend (Jack McNaught).

Middleton and Harris succeeded in creating an enigmatic Katherine in this short play, but it is the moments of levity that allow the script to flow, providing the necessary contrast to Katherine’s melancholy. Two materialistic and obnoxious former colleagues of Katherine’s (Kim Lyzba and Christina Canning) provide the comedy and are used to good effect as the other end of the spectrum, while Katherine’s mother and brother (Frida Emilie Moss and Sam Kozlowski) give the story balance and substantial depth to the main character.

Added to this are the appearance of Katherine’s long lost friend (Alicia Bloundele), the eerily effective use of a voice recording of Katherine’s therapist expertly exonorating herself for any failings in her own work, and the minimalist use of live musicians.

The success of ‘Katherine’ comes from its nonlinear script, which never confuses but instead grips the audience as the play flows through time, back and forth from hope to tragedy via the mundane reality of suburban office life.

The play ends with a younger Katherine, full of youthful enthusiasm and love, a final twist that leaves the audience feeling that they have witnessed the beginnings of significant careers for both the writer and lead actress.

Director: Alicia Bloundele.

Written by: Bradley Middleton.

On Friday 19th August at the Etcetera Theatre above The Oxford Arms, Camden Town, 4.30pm as part of Kingston University’s MA showcase.

Bradley Middleton’s next play, ‘Misery Tree’, will be on at the Rose in Kingston in November. Watch this space for more info…

Huffington Post’s London Launch

It is a fantastic time for online journalism as illustrated by the arrival of  The Huffington Post on this side of the pond.

From left, Kelly Osbourne, Shami Chakrabarti, Richard Bacon, Arianna Huffington,Kate Burns,Alastair Campbell,Celia Walden and Jon Gaunt attend the launch event for The Huffington Post UK at The Millbank Tower London. Courtesy The Huffington Post UK Launch

July saw the launch of the collaborative blog that encourages independent and lively debate at the Millbank Curzon in London.  A fine evening hosted by Richard Bacon attendees enjoyed drinks, canapés and forthright opinions from Alistair Campbell, Shami Chakrabarti and Arianna Huffington amongst others throughout the evening.

Dream Story @ The Gate Theatre

Director Anna Ledwich brings Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella, made famous by the movie “Eyes Wide Shut”, to the Gate Theatre this month.

Under her direction Schnitzler’s tale of jealousy and hidden desires transports the audience from the sharing of dreams to the ever-increasing shadowy darkness of the human heart.  What opens with a drunken post-party covetous discussion between man and wife descends rapidly to exposed indiscretions and the active pursuit of secret longings before returning to the memory of a fast-fading dream.

Luke Neal and Leah Muller are adroitly cast as husband and wife in this adaptation. The physical contrast marries well to the imbalance within Fridolin and Albertine’s relationship the former’s persona as upstanding citizen soon transformed to seedy sexual predator.

The stage is dominated by a bed which slides to create different rooms and spaces. Most effective is a powerful lift sequence descending in parallel with Fridolin’s moral compass. The decadence of wealthy Vienna in the 20’s is admirably portrayed via costume and the contrast with the poorer classes.

The cast are truly masterful and it is a play worth seeing for the performances alone. Neal is convincingly duplicitous and cruel while Muller is outstanding in her transformation from wife to wicked costume merchant. Rebecca Scroggs, in multiple supporting roles, is particularly arresting as the dejectedly spurned lover injecting a rather surprising bit of humour.  Jon Foster in smaller roles equally brings presence to the characters he embodies.

The challenge of portraying dreams however requires the audience to delineate between reality and fantasy and it’s ultimately wearing in this protracted production. A complex portrait of yearning and madness – to be fair – that resides within an overly long and hazy chronology. In the end, no one’s dreams, real or staged, are of interest to anyone but Freudians and the dreamer.

Gate Theatre
11 Pembridge Rd,
London, UK, W11 3HQ
0207 229 9040

Until July 16th 2011

A fine new Addition to Portobello Market

Portobello Premier Farmers and Fine Foods Market launches a new speciality food market this weekend.  In future this addition will be open Fridays-Sunday (10:30-17:30)with produce reflecting the ethnic diversity of the capital.  Alongside top UK produce (rare meats, fresh fish and organic farming) you’ll find delights from Poland, Spain and France. Opening day is Saturday June 18th and includes interactive activities for kids and adults alike – get down there for the wine tasting, music and more! 4-8 Acklam Road (at the Portobello junction)

In Quest of Conscience: History lost in Translation @Finborough Theatre – 2*

by J. Cavanagh

In Quest of Conscience brings the interviews of extermination camp Nazi Commandant Franz Stangl to the stage.   An intriguing, devastating subject matter yet Gitta Sereny’s interviews, so real on paper, translate poorly to the “boards”.

The four-piece production, made up of Stangl (Martin Buchan), Sereny (Phillipa Peak) plus a male and female chorus (Patrick Knowles & Siubhan Harrison,) fails to augment the text in this adaptation. Stangl’s reflections on his time in command of Sobibor and Treblinka come across as impersonal.  Buchan and Peak do their best to channel their characters but their efforts come across as “acted” and at times under-rehearsed.

The simple set with the leads in conversation across a table from each other in the Dusseldorf jail following Stangl’s extradition from Brazil could provide a stark contrasting backdrop for strong emotion.  The chorus re-enact scenes from Stangls’ past re-creating third party memories: his wife in interview, a priest, a daughter, etc.  The chorus is an effective tool – accent challenges aside – and the play would benefit from Stangl interacting with his revisited past. The chorus, Knowles in particular, energises proceedings but more is required to bring this death laden play to life and connect us to the horrors committed and rationalised by this man.

Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London, UK, SW10 9ED

Sundays & Mondays until 28 June 2011

Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes including interval

Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd: 50 Years for a London Premiere @ The Finborough Theatre – 3.5

The Finborough, a sure bet for fringe theatre, currently delivers top drawer musical enjoyment with a revival of “Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd”.

Beamish (left) & Ashforde (right) in The Roar of The Greasepaint, The Smell of The Crowd – The Finborough Theatre

Set in the smallest Big Top I’ve ever seen the story is ultimately one of class struggle between the portly officious “Sir” (Oliver Beamish) and the threadbare hungry-eyed “Cocky” (Matthew Ashforde). These two are engaged in an absurd game of hopscotch with ever-changing rules to ensure the upper-hand of the upper-class.  The competition is followed throughout by a chorus of “urchins” part-mice, part-Pierrot who provide dazzling support for whichever player takes the lead.

The 60’s original never gathered the UK momentum required for a West-End run but instead was exported straight to Broadway where the class tale and setting translated as a huge success for its resonance with the struggles of the great depression.  Undeniably dated, stereotypical comedic fodder is provided briefly by “The Negro” a caricature with little more than a hayseed stance and guffaw.  Nice then that Terry Doe, assuming this small role, stunned the room with his show-stopping delivery of “Feeling Good”.

The true standout performance of the evening is delivered by Matthew Ashforde who takes on “Cocky” with gutsy relentlessness. As engaged with the audience as his fellow cast members he embodies the painful trials and pathetic triumphs of this role. His eye-catching panache brings to the production a magnetic pull that kept us drawn to the storyline of reinvention and hurdles.

Superior numbers, tight performances and terrific choreography elevate the night’s entertainment.  The cast deliver with such vivacity that from the very outset we were captivated.  The chorus of singing and dancing urchins outdo themselves with exuberant routines in a set that can barely contain them.  Hoots of hilarity and shouts of bravo echo after each number proving this production a delightful, rollicking evening with an entertainment value exceeding many despite the half-century wait for its London opening.

Finborough Theatre
118 Finborough Road
London, UK, SW10 9ED

Until 2 July 2011

2 hours including intermission.