King Charles III – Theatre Review

King Charles III

Imagine if some time in the near future Prince Charles took the throne and if years later Shakespeare wrote a history play about the eventful reign of King Charles III. What you have in your mind right now is the play currently in its final week at the Almeida Theatre in North London. Mike Bartlett takes the place of Shakespeare and has written a modern play in the style of the bard with a contemporary twist and a cast of familiar characters. This is a play in which the Duchess of Cambridge (Lydia Wilson) takes on an almost Lady Macbeth-like role; a sweet but sharp woman nudging her husband towards the crown, and the ghost of Diana (Katie Brayben) stalks the minimalist stage.

The plot is clever and surprisingly relevant; the Queen is dead and Charles (Tim Pigott-Smith) is the new Monarch awaiting coronation. In his first meeting with the current Labour Prime Minister (Adam James) Charles discusses an upcoming Privacy bill that will restrict the freedom of the press and protect the general public from intrusion. The vote has already been taken in Westminster and the bill has been passed but Charles has his doubts and, after some manipulation from the Conservative leader (Nicholas Rowe), exercises the Royal Assent; the power every monarch has to veto a parliamentary bill but which hasn’t been used for well over a century.

With Charles demanding parliament reconsider the bill the Prime Minister refuses and takes this as a direct affront to democracy. Soon government is sparring with the royal family, the Windors are fighting amongst themselves, and the country is divided between republicans and royalists. Prince Harry (Richard Goulding) wants out of the family altogether to be with his new love Jess (Tafline Steen), who is suffering from press intrusion herself, Prince William (Oliver Chris) is torn between loyalty to his father and his country, and both he and Charles find themselves visited by the veiled spectre of the people’s Princess.

King Charles III - Tim Pigott-Smith

The conceit of the play, that of what would happen if the monarchy actually exercised their rights as head of state, forces the audience to consider what is the bigger sacrifice; Britain losing its monarchy or weakening its democratic status by allowing the royals to force government to rethink its decisions. The whole issue is made all the more current with the recent uproar that resulted when Prince Charles dared to express a negative opinion of Putin when he likened the Russian leader to Hitler last week. Should the royal family be forced to stay silent on political issues or do they have the freedom of speech we all enjoy, and how influential should their opinion be? Arguably this isn’t a hard decision for most people so perhaps the real question is whether there is a role for royals in modern society at all.

Alongside all this thought-provoking theatrics is a thoroughly enjoyable play. Whilst imitating the flow of a Shakespearian classic King Charles III plays with the form with the aid of a cheeky sense of humour and the result never feels anything less than fresh, engaging, and energetic. The cast are all superb and their characterisations of familiar faces help us to see the people that stand behind the pomp and circumstance. There was laughter, there were tears, and when all was said and done my mind was racing from an excellent evening at the theatre.

This was my first visit to the Almeida Theatre but it won’t be my last. In a space as intimate as at my beloved Donmar the audience is never far from the action and, sitting in the second row, we often found ourselves in the midst of a scene.

King Charles III is a timeless play that was both classical and contemporary and reminded me just how good theatre can be. Superb stuff.

King Charles III closes at the Almeida this Saturday and is all sold out but is getting a West End transfer to the Wyndham’s Theatre for September and October of this year with tickets going on sale soon from the Almeida website.

Privacy – Theatre Review

Joshua McGuire in Privacy Photo by Johan Persson

I love the Donmar Warehouse as a theatre venue as the small space allows for no bad seats and maximum intimacy; you’re never going to be more than 20 feet from the actors which is a stark contrast to sitting in the third circle of the majority of West End theatres. As fond as I am with the venue I hadn’t managed to see a play there that had really got to me; I’ve seen four or more plays there over the past through years, including the excellent Inadmissible Evidence, but none had given me that special feeling of having seen something new, thought-provoking, and all together special.

This changed a few nights ago when I went to see James Graham’s new play Privacy. A patchwork play consisting of scores of interviews with journalists, politicians, and those in the know is tied together by the presumably partly fictionalised story of the Writer (Joshua McGuire) researching the play under duress the Director (Michelle Terry). As the Writer discovers how we all share too much information through social media, just by having our phones turned on, and simply by what we Google so do the audience and an ensemble cast flit from character to character to deliver verbatim dialogue.

The staging is simple with a few items of furniture providing half a dozen locations, sometimes all at once, and the backdrop is a large screen onto which is projected the digital fingerprints of the audience/the contributors/the world in general. The screen was vital in keeping track of what characters were on stage at any one time as helpful documentary style captions accompanied their appearance and it was also utilised to demonstrate the various discoveries and revelations regarding privacy that the Writer had uncovered. Imagine a giant iPhone showing the recommended purchases on Amazon or the leaked NSA and GCHQ slides being presented to the audience as if in an online surveillance training seminar.

From Amazon to GCHQ Privacy certainly runs the gamut when it comes to organisations accessing our personal data. Some of the quirks of online advertising or how we present ourselves on Facebook are shown as an almost fun quirk. The idea that brands were getting to know us by snooping on our activity generated more surprised laughter than gasps of horror as we all sort of know it’s happening and don’t know whether we approve or not. I should confess here that when not writing here I have another job with the word “data” in the title so perhaps was more aware going in than most. It was when the play turned to the behaviour of government agencies that a chill set in amongst the enraptured audience.

Paul Chahidi and Joshua McGuire in Privacy Photo by Johan Persson

For the most part Privacy has a light, lively air with what could be quite dry facts presented in amusing ways with huge diversity in delivery. Amid all this fun and frivolity is a message about the very real danger of having our privacy invaded. Once we were all suitably amused and relaxed the play pulled the rug from under us and suddenly we weren’t laughing any more. Without going into details the evening ended with me feeling complicit in the very thing we were earlier worrying might be happening to us.

With a strong cast lead by Joshua McGuire and Michelle Terry Privacy leans on its cast to make what could be an unpredictable show really work. The rest of the ensemble cast, Gunnar Cauthery, Jonathan Coy, Nina Sosanya, and (my personal highlight) Paul Chahidi, switch between characters with ease and distinction.

As a whole Privacy is an endless entertaining, informative, scary, and funny evening at the theatre that feels a little too real. It took days for me to stop telling everyone around me as much as I dared about the show and the moment I got home my Facebook profile underwent a minor overhaul. If Privacy lacks anything then it is a real plot beyond someone writing the play itself. There is a last-minute attempt at a narrative but it doesn’t quite come together and, arguably, it wasn’t really needed. The ideas explored within Privacy and the way they are presented are grand enough to stand on their own.

In summary Privacy is the play I have been waiting for and it is essential viewing for anyone whose ever wondered why they see the ads they do online or wondering how much the government, and advertisers, know about what they’ve been up to.

Privacy runs at the Donmar Warehouse until May 31st 2014 and a West End transfer is surely in its future. I urge you to go and see it in this intimate space; in a theatre so small that when the light go up you see the other half of the audience sitting across from you in a manner that feels suddenly violating after the evening’s events. The final batch of £10 Barclays Front Row tickets (your last chance really to see the show) go on sale at 10am tomorrow morning at the Donmar Website.

One last thing… If you are asked if you want to take part, go for it. I did and have no regrets. And remember, “If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable – Theatre Review

The Drowned Man

My previous experience of immersive theatre events only stretches so far as a series of live horror mazes in York last Halloween so when I was invited to see Punchdrunk’s latest epic production The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable I tentatively jumped at the chance. Punchdrunk are known for creating new worlds for audiences to explore and for their latest piece have teamed up with the National Theatre to create their biggest work yet.

Just near Paddington station sits an innocuous looking former postal sorting office with little signage and an excited huddle of theatre fans queuing outside. What lies inside is a Hollywood studio recreated over four floors complete with surrounding woodland, a small town, and a desert wasteland. The scope of the set is large enough that as a member of the audience roaming within in search of the story you might find a room at the start of the evening and never make your way back there again. Within the labyrinth of rooms, floors, and settings characters roam around acting out a variety of stories as the evening builds to two dramatic conclusions. The audience is free to explore, and are encouraged to do so alone, each wearing white masks that create a sense of an anonymous and ghostly presence that watches scenes of lust, violence, and desperation but never acts to intervene or interfere.

I arrived at the venue just after 7pm and joined the buzzing queue outside. I was attending the event alone which filled me with dread at the idea of exploring a psychedelic world alone, but also excited me as it gave me the freedom to take my own route through the world and weave my own story from what I found. Before entering the world of The Drowned Man we were all handed a slip of paper which detailed the two major plots that would be playing out through the evening:

The Drowned Man Synopsis

At any other theatre event this might be considered as spoilery but within the world of Punchdrunk this slip of paper became a lifeline with which I was able to relate the scenes I was to witness inside to the overall narrative.

By 7:30pm I was walking in a small group down a dark corridor which weaved left and right and was lit only by red light. Fully disoriented we entered a small room where other audience members waited nervously. From here we moved into a second room and were given our white masks. An announcement welcomed us to Temple Studios and invited us to the wrap party for a film at 10pm. Until then we were welcome to explore the studio provided we did not speak or remove our masks. We were also told that helpers in black masks would be around to provide help but not guide us and that we were better off exploring alone. So far it was all feeling pretty ominous.

Fully briefed we entered a large lift and met our first character of the night. A cheery American woman in an evening dress reiterated the instructions as she commandeered the lift down to the basement. Four of the twenty or so in the lift, including myself, stepped out of the lift and the woman slammed the door shut behind us. Had I come with a companion we would by now be separated from one another with no clue how to reunite in a massive building specifically designed to boggle the mind. The three women I suddenly found myself with seemed scared and tentative, unsure as to why we were suddenly alone in a dark basement corridor wearing masks and it was at this moment that I discovered the biggest surprise of the night. I wasn’t scared!

I was excited, emboldened, and wanted to explore. Leaving the only souls in sight behind I strode off through the first door I came to and so began an evening of running down corridors, nervously peering in doors, and scaring myself with my own reflection. If there was a closed door in the building I tried its handle and if a large crowd was following a character one way I would move in another.

For two and a half hours I roamed the building and at times found myself completely alone in a peculiar landscape; a snowy film set, a desert funeral attended by scarecrows, a smoke-filled room with checkerboard floor, or a caravan park surrounded by trees. At other moments I would stumble across a large group of people, normally formed because a few characters were playing out a scene that fit somehow into the jigsaw of a narrative, and for a brief period we would form a collective audience before dissipating once more.

A Hollywood Fable

Once a scene finished you were left with two options. Either you stay to explore the room the scene took place in or run desperately after one of the characters to see where they go next and how their plot develops. I tried both options; at one point chasing three characters to the basement only for them to disappear behind a locked door. Stranded once more I happened upon an initiation ceremony for a new actor at the fictional studio and left the scene only to return later when events had moved on without me and an orgy commenced.

That is the beauty of The Drowned Man.; the plot does not you need you to be there for it to progress. At any one moment during the evening two major storylines are unfolding simultaneously and numerous other subplots are progressing as well. It is pure chance what scenes you will witness, or what clues you might find on a character’s desk while exploring. Some reviewers seem to have found the amount of responsibility given to the audience to be too great. There is every chance you will miss all the key scenes but for me the Punchdrunk experience was about more than just the plot.

Admittedly if I hadn’t done my research beforehand the whole night might have been baffling but as it was I had one of the best evenings of my cultural life. The experience really was completely immersive as when you are not watching characters interact you are free to enter any set and touch the furnishings, leaf through papers, and smell the world. Walking through a series of motel bedrooms each has their own distinct smell that told you all you needed to know about their inhabitants.

Over the space of two and a half hours I saw dancing, singing, sex, murder, joy, and despair. In one evening I got stuck in a forest, followed a naked man through a desert, explored shrines and chapels, got lost in a secret tunnel between a dress shop and a cinema, witnessed an audition and an orgy, and had a silent conversation with the owner of the studio. Time moved at its own pace and at a point when I was worried that the evening was almost over I checked my watch and found only an hour had passed. When the evening came to a close the whole audience had congregated for the grand finale as if all drawn there by an invisible force. For a brief moment we were a fully formed audience sitting and watching a show before final bows were taken and we removed our masks and returned to the mundanity of the real world.

The whole evening was funny, scary, pretentious, and wonderful. I could have spent a whole week of evenings exploring the rooms and still not got bored or even close to having seen everything The Drowned Man has to offer.

I wasn’t expecting to but I absolutely loved it and want to go back right away. It is as simple as that.

The Drowned Man is booking until 30th December 2013 and needs to be seen to be believed. Tickets can be bought online but be warned as tickets peak at £47.50. If you can afford to go then go, otherwise pester a loved one for a theatrical Christmas treat.

Be bold and explore and you won’t be disappointed.

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable – Trailer

The Drowned Man A Hollywood Fable

You may or may not have heard of Punchdrunk, they are an award-winning theatre company who take over locations to creative a fully immersive theatrical experience. In a Punchdrunk performance you are free to wander about and discover story threads at your own pace and perhaps go into rooms nobody else will find and have an evening unlike any other member of the audience.

Their latest piece is their biggest yet and they have teamed up with the National Theatre to take over an entire four storey building next to Paddington Station. This performance has particular intrigue for us at Mild Concern as it is set in a film studio in the 1960s, the official blurb explains more:

Amidst the fading glamour of 1960s Los Angeles, stands Temple Studios – a crumbling monument to the golden age of film, seducing wide-eyed dreamers with the promise of wealth and fame. Here, movie stars mingle with hungry young upstarts, while beyond the gates lies a forgotten hinterland where the many rejected by the studio system scratch out a living. Inspired by Georg Büchner’s fractured masterpiece Woyzeck, The Drowned Man explores the darkness of the Hollywood dream.

Intriguing no? The trailer below gives a greater sense of the style and atmosphere of the performance.

Tickets can be bought online and the show runs until 31st December 2013. Fingers crossed we’ll be going soon and will share the experience with you.

Once – Theatre Review

Once

Based on the beautiful, uplifting, heartbreaking, hearwarming indie film Once comes the ever so slightly less beautiful, uplifting, heartbreaking, heartwarming but nevertheless great (although not very indie anymore) West End production Once. Both tell the simple story of Guy, an Irish hoover repairman and musician, meets Girl, a Czech mother and musician, leading to Guy and Girl making beautiful music together.

Whereas the film is entirely based around the two main characters, the play includes a slightly larger cast who serve to both take the crucial role in performing the soundtrack to the story and to add some slightly overstated comic relief. I can understand the desire to lighten the mood in a tale that tugs at the heartstrings so but I feel some of it doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the central romantic story. The film of Once is such a small intimate piece the broader comedic moments can come across as slightly jarring.

Once - Guy and Girl

My only other criticism is that the ‘manic’ in the ‘manic pixie dream Girl’ role (Zrinka Cvitešic) is initially slightly overplayed and the coldness of the lead Guy (Declan Bennett) is perhaps a little too cold but they certainly settle down and become a lot more believable throughout the performance.

Other than these niggles the show was wonderful and maintained more intimacy than is usually possible within a West End musical. As with the film the music and songs are the real star, really emphasising the emotions of the characters. They are performed brilliantly as you can see from our Once videos. Flora Spencer-Longhurst particularly impressed (Tim) on violin.

So overall pretty excellent really. I forgot about my day-to-day worries, cried a lot, still feel slightly dazed and emotionally tired, and am looking forward to taking a small (healthy?) amount of time out wallowing over my love lost before putting on my special suit and throwing myself headlong into life.

Once is on at the Phoenix Theatre and tickets can be bought online. Go and have a laugh and a good cry.