Authors Posts by Ben Rackshaw

Ben Rackshaw

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London Theatre Reviewer.

Let The Right One In - Apollo Theatre Review

Adaptations of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel can best be described as a mixed bag – the 2008 Swedish language film received rave reviews, whilst a 2010 American remake, renamed Let Me In, is better left forgotten. Because of this, the National Theatre Scotland version of Let The Right One In comes with a complex set of expectations. Will it be faithfully mysterious and haunting? Or will the same kind of commercial and populist pressures that sank the later film render it toothless? Fortunately, this play is as shocking and eerie as theatre is able to be, whilst also packing an emotional punch that not only excuses the gore, but also provides a profound exploration of alienation and love.

At its heart, this is a coming of age story – Oskar is a bullied teenager who finds opportunities for friendship and escape through a romance with Eli, who has moved next door with an older man. Difficulty arises not only from the increasingly violent bullying of Oskar, but also as it becomes apparent that a recent spate of violent murders has a cause close to home. On top of this familiar-sounding set up, however, is a playful mixing of genres and the interweaving of a folkloric vampire tale.

Writer Jack Thorne has moved the setting from Sweden to the Scottish Highlands – the story of a harassed innocent being freed only by extreme actions must have resonated with a Scottish audience facing September’s referendum – with the forest and snow that fill the stage highlighting the similarities between the two. Both are far away from central London on a spring evening, and this is something that the transformative set makes beautifully clear.

This is also helped by the two leads – Martin Quinn as Oskar and Rebecca Benson as Eli – reprising their roles from the initial Scottish run. Quinn adds a cheeky humour to the painfully awkward Oskar and, although Benson’s combination of fey innocence with a slightly gruff aggression initially grates, this choice eventually makes perfect sense. Eli’s appearance during a fantasy sequence in which Oskar enacts violent revenge on his bullies could lead to a reading of her character as merely the personification of this fantasy. Benson’s physicality and vocal delivery mean that she always seems something more than that, with a sense of insistent, latent power ever present in her performance.

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN - Apollo Theatre

The revenge fantasy sequence is an early example of the excellent choreography and music that is used throughout. Icelandic musician Ólafur Arnalds, whose music has appeared in The Hunger Games and Broadchurch, has provided a techno-tinged soundtrack that used most effectively to back group dance sequences. The most haunting choreography appears in early scenes, where Oskar’s desperation to be powerful enough to overcome his problems is expressed through other cast members shadowing his movements, expressing a feeling familiar to anyone who has ever felt overwhelmed by a problem.

Helpfully, if this overwhelming problem is the sheer number of plays in the West End, Let the Right One In manages to combine elements of an assortment of them: the awkwardly innocent youth of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time (which precedes it at the Apollo), the out-of-your-seat horror of The Woman in Black, and even a train scene straight out of The 39 Steps – playing just around the corner. Far from a bricolage, though, Let The Right One In subverts each of these ideas, leaving audience reactions varying between rapt attention, head shakes and gasps that only increase as it reaches its breath-taking finale.

benBen Rackstraw
Theatre Reviewer

Let The Right One is currently showing at the Apollo Theatre.  www.apollotheatrelondon.co.uk

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Review From Here To Eternity Musical

From Here to Eternity is set in Hawaii on the eve of Pearl Harbour, and is most famous for a steamy beach scene in its 1953 Oscar-winning film incarnation in which Burt Lancaster’s Sgt Warden and Deborah Kerr, as conflicted housewife Karen, kiss so passionately in the waves that censors wanted it cut entirely. This scene remains in a new musical version, with Darius Danesh getting all sandy as Warden, and is complemented by the details of the original novel that didn’t make it past the movie censors – a subplot involving Waikiki’s gay scene and the loves and fears of its inhabitants. Alongside this is a kind of American army version of upstairs downstairs, where Warden’s affair is mirrored by the love story of newly recruited Private Prewitt and prostitute Lorene, the former played with convincingly enraged idealism by Robert Lonsdale and the latter with a confident charm by Siubhan Harrison.

from here to eternity the musical at cinema

This story, shot through with sweaty tropical sexuality, is great musical theatre fodder – unsurprising, then, that the project was picked up by lyricist Tim Rice, but more surprising that such a strong show only ran for six months after it opened in 2013. At the recent screening of a filmed version of a performance for that run, Rice bemoaned this, but was confident about its future, and proud that the musical was the West End debut for new composer Stuart Brayson. There is certainly a freshness to the tunes, with ‘Thirty Year Man’ illustrating the hopes and despair of army life, ‘You Got The Money’ a sultry reworking of the themes of ‘Big Spender’ and ‘I Love The Army’ as a showcase for the tragicomic character of Maggio – Frank Sinatra’s role in the film, here performed flawlessly by Ryan Sampson.

 from here to eternity the musical at cinema

At the moment, then, your only chance to catch the show is in the cinema release of this filmed version. Although it can’t beat an experience in a theatre, it sure is cheaper, and the filming is really effective at capturing the essence of the show, especially the choreography, which looks incredible, with the camera weaving its way around the performers, and the sound, which captures the band and performers brilliantly, especially in the emotionally charged duets.

from here to eternity the musical at cinema

For anyone who has harboured a desire to be kissed by Darius Danesh (forging a successful musical theatre career following his appearances on TV talent shows) the film might provoke some internal conflict. Close ups of his topless torso are certain to excite, but other shots highlight some slightly melodramatic acting that, whilst making perfect sense on the stage, doesn’t quite work on the screen, especially when on one occasion a surprisingly direct kissing style seems to surprise even the actress receiving it. It’s easy to forgive these flaws, however, in the spirit of reaching beyond the West End, especially for a show that is a romantic romp with some great tunes and interweaving storylines that create moments of high drama and poignancy.

ben

 

Ben Rackstraw
Theatre Reviewer 

From Here To Eternity: The Musical is in cinemas from 3 July 2014.  www.fromheretoeternitythemusical.com

Arcola theatre dalston london

Unexpectedly recognising something is a powerful experience – spotting someone in the street that looks like a friend or accidentally catching your own reflection can be deeply affecting, and this seems to be magnified triggered by a work of art. In the exceptionally well-observed Visitors these moments are frequent but subtle enough not to be overly sentimental, making for an incredibly moving piece of theatre.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the ArcolaImage  Mark Douet

This begins before the play even starts, with the stage set with the footstools, rug and crossword books that are standard issue for any elderly relative. Arthur and Edie, the elderly couple at the heart of the drama, also reminisce and bicker in a way that provides touchstones for anyone who has spent time with their grandparents, whilst also presenting their individual experience. This opening, with its snatched pieces of memory mixed with current worries accentuated by Edie’s accelerating dementia, echoes Beckett. Here, however, Godot does arrive, in the shape of young home help volunteer Kate. This sets in motion a gradual unravelling of family tensions and a debate about care for the elderly.

Writer Barney Norris has described increasing life expectancy as one of the greatest challenges faced by Middle England, and the questions he poses here – in his first full-length play – feel timely and important. It is a noble undertaking, tainted only by the difficulty posed by his tackling this subject as a young man. Norris writes Arthur and Edie beautifully, but the deep, unquestioned love and easy conversation sometimes feel saccharine. Norris clearly recognises this, and has Arthur address the problem in an early scene by explaining to Kate that the couple don’t often talk that much, and that they are just excited about her arrival. Nevertheless, because we don’t actually see these everyday silences, Visitors, despite its depiction of dementia, can occasionally seem like a rose-tinted view of the old age that we might wish for our relatives and ourselves.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the Arcola

Image  Mark Douet

This issue is mitigated entirely, however, by breath-taking performances from Linda Bassett as Edie and Robin Soans as Arthur. Their love never feels anything less than genuine, and Edie’s illness is played with great sensitivity. Because of how adoring they are, it is slightly baffling that they have managed to produce such odious offspring as Stephen, played with an uncomfortably tense gawkiness by Simon Muller. It is difficult to feel sympathy for him, even as he delivers a great set piece of a joke that falls completely flat, highlighting the gulf between him an his father, or his increasingly apparent sadness. The only duff note is Muller’s tight-lipped Jimmy Carr-esque delivery of Stephen’s desperate one-liners, which, although clearly meant to grate, do so too successfully.

There is a slither of hope for Stephen, though: in the opening scene Arthur delivers an affectionately sarcastic “ho ho” in response to a comment from his wife; later, his son does the same. This verbal tic, passed down between generations, seems to be the one thing that father and son share, suggesting that if old age presents challenges of isolation and changes to the world that make it difficult to understand, at least we can pass down laughter and affection.

London Theatre Review - Visitors at the Arcola

 

Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer

Catch Visitors till March 29 2014 at the Arcola Theatre

London Theatre Review – Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon

Our resident theatre critic Ben Rackstraw heads for the intimate theatre tucked away above the Drayton Arms pub to review a staging of Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon.

What is happening behind the windows that we walk past every day? What is hidden behind the blank faces of the people we walk by? Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon challenges us with some uncomfortable answers to these questions – so what better setting could there by for a new production than self-satisfied South Kensington?

 

The Golden Dragon of the title is a takeaway that serves as the springboard for a variety of stories, populated by the customers whose lives play out in and around the building that houses the restaurant. The most striking thing as the play opens, each of the five cast members chopping furiously in the kitchen, is that there are no Asian actors. This initially appears problematic – in a play ostensibly about the oppression of Asian immigrants, there are no Asian voices (Schimmelpfennig is German).

Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Image Roland Schimmelpfennig. Wikipedia Creative Commons

However, as the play continues, two older actors play a young couple, men play women, women play men, and one male cast member plays a female grasshopper (more on that later). This playing with gender, age and race asks the audience to confront their expectations, and goes some way to excuse the all-white cast. This element of the play is attacked with enthusiasm, with Madlen Meyer’s controlled male aggression and Linus Karp’s uncomfortable female sexuality being played particularly well.

It is around half way through the play that the kaleidoscope of vignettes comes into focus, and it becomes clear that Asian economic migration is merely a device to explore general ideas about the effect of hegemony and power relationships. This is when this production really finds its feet. The first half drags a little, with some characterisation verging on caricature, but as the stories begin to interweave the actors discover a new energy, and this production really finds its feet.

 Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Roland_Schimmelpfennig play - london theatre review

Images www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk

The failings of the first half are perhaps due to downplaying the play’s more shocking aspects. This work is a confrontational black comedy, but too often the comedy was played up and the drama played down – particularly in a poorly judged tin-foil tooth prop that renders a hilariously dark slapstick sequence just the wrong side of ridiculous. Towards the end the shocks came thick and fast, but they might have been better spaced.

One of the most effective threads is a disturbing twist on the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, which seems to ask how far we use stories to desensitise ourselves to the brutal reality of the world. The strange, long limbed physicality of Karp’s grasshopper communicates a terrible melancholy and shame that grows to fill the whole play. Even the restaurant scenes, played mostly for laughs, take on a sinister hue. Is the play of server and customer also a story? A lie that allows us to ignore cruelty and deprivation? This production poses that question subtly, showing how power imbalance can corrupt both the powerful and the powerless – although there is a hint of saccharine in the ending that feels slightly out of place.

brompton road london

Image The Wolf via Flickr

Walking back out into South Kensington, on to a street of takeaways and minicab firms, the power of The Golden Dragon is such that you can’t avoid thinking about what might be behind those curtained windows, but you worry that if you looked you might just see yourself reflected in the glass.

London Theatre Review -  Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon

Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer

London Theatre Reviews  – Sunstroke at the Platform Theatre
London Theatre ReviewsA Doll’s House at the Duke of York Theatre
London Theatre Reviews
Sweet Bird of Youth Review

You can see what other productions are playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre on Old Brompton Road at www.thedraytontheatre.co.uk

Sunstroke theatre reviews london

Sunstroke, an original project developed by Belka Productions, has the dual aims presenting Russian texts to English audiences (the overarching aim of the company) and a new goal of using more physical elements and inventive staging than in previous productions. The latter is achieved brilliantly, with projections facing one another across a sand-covered stage. Sadly, the presentation of the Russian texts, short stories by Chechov and Bunin, misses out on some potential impact in a slow first half, although much is regained in a clever and well-paced denouement.

sunstroke Katia Elizarova and Oliver King

Katia Elizarova and Oliver King 

The production is at its most impressive, however, when the scenes play out at the same time, usually in alternating scenes, with the actors not quite seeing or interacting with each other. The first half details the affairs themselves, from meetings, to consummation, to endings. These sections suffer from a slightly clunky script, especially where the characters are required to be sincere. Much more successful are the lighter moments: Stephen Pucci has fun switching rapidly between playing his primary character, Dmitri Dmitrich, and a dog with, at one point, a bone in its mouth; in Bunin’s story, Oliver King plays a plot point concerning a costume change with enjoyable levity.

An odd yet very enjoyable inclusion is a dancer, Masumi Saito, who opens the play in a kimono to the sound of Japanese music, and returns a number of times throughout. The choreography is beautiful, expressing the themes of the stories whilst adding a female voice that is lacking in the male driven narrative. From a theatre company that wants to create Anglo-Russian cultural exchange, however, it is confusing. The production already marries Russian literature with an English aesthetic; the Japanese cultural influence, however wonderful it is to watch, seems out-of-place.

Sunstroke Masumi Saito

Masumi Saito

A second half that explores the effect of the affairs on the lives of the two men works much better. The pace picks up, the links between the stories are cleverly explored, and we are even provided with a link to the dance pieces in the form of a play-within-a-play called ‘The Geisha’.

This brings the material much closer to the level of the excellent set design. Simon Eves’ projected visuals utilise Microsoft’s Kinect and a range of flowing material, from bed sheets, water and smoke to enhance the mood without interfering without upstaging the actors. Most effective were his sheets, twisting themselves slowly and tortuously in a representation of sex.

At the end of an affair it is very rare for either party involved to feel satisfaction. Most commonly, aside from mourning what has passed, you would expect unanswered questions and frustration. Although this production does leave a few unanswered questions, its exploration of the psyches of lovers and ideas of two different writers is enjoyable rather than frustrating, and suggests that future productions by this young company – the next is A Dashing Fellow, a double-bill of Nabokov short stories at The New Diorama Theatre – will be worth investigating.

theatre reviews london

 

Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer 

Catch Sunstroke till September 21 at The Platform Theatre, King’s Cross. Book Tickets

London Theatre reviews

Carrie Cracknell’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s1879 classic play, A Doll’s House, transfers to the West End after a critically acclaimed run at the Young Vic, and loses none of its ability to captivate, shock, and provoke debate. (Cover image Richard Hubert Smith)

One of the most striking things about theatre is its ability to make itself immediate. When well produced, something about the proximity of the stage drags writing from decades or centuries ago into the present. Even so, it is surprising quite how much A Doll’s House has to say about gender politics in a Britain full of passionate protest about female faces on bank notes, celebrity domestic abuse and anonymous, aggressive misogyny on social media.

A DOLL'S HOUSE  by Ibsen

Image Johan Persson

The plot follows Nora Helmer over the Christmas period – struggling as a debt she has hidden from her straight-laced husband Torvald becomes a bargaining chip in her moneylender’s desperate plans to win back his job at the bank in which Torvald is a manager. The tension this creates is exquisitely managed as the drama plays out, eliciting the kind of gasps and cries of “no!” from the audience at The Duke of Yorks Theatre that are usually reserved for the most scandalous of stories shared between friends in the pub.

Our view of the Helmer family’s life is greatly enhanced by Ian MacNeil’s revolving stage that affords us an intimate view of the entire ground floor of their apartment. What begins as a sentimental John-Lewis-Christmas-advert-esque montage, with characters carrying presents and trailing scarves and gloves through the revolving rooms, soon becomes an almost voyeuristic examination of the web of lies spun by Nora, as private areas hidden upstage are rotated round to the audience.

London Theatre Duke of York Theatre

London Theatre Duke of York Theatre

 Images by Johan Persson & Richard Hubert Smith

This nod to the doll’s house of the title is particularly effective from the upper circle, where the whole set is visible at all times and you can almost feel the story playing out as if you were directing your childhood toys.

At the center of this production is Hattie Morahan’s incredible performance. Her Nora is seductive – at times both characters and audience seem hypnotised by her. However, the subtlety in this performance means she is also able to run the spectrum between repulsive and admirable, pathetic and inspirational.

Morahan’s fidgety, head-shaking, wide-eyed, explosive Nora produces an incredible complexity that is completely enthralling. Similarly compelling is Nick Fletcher’s desperate moneylender, clearly unsuited to the act of blackmail he is attempting, and Dominic Rowan’s cloying Torvald.

The play ignites a debate about the power of language to create illusions, whether loving or destructive, that feels utterly contemporary. Torvald’s pet names for his wife are revealed as a form of control, and much of Nora’s fantasy comes from her attempts to control the language used by those around her. What is left ambiguous is whether this is a result of individual corruption or societal pressure; we are shown little of the society in which the Helmers move.

A Doll’s House, then, is a self-contained microcosm that asks us to look inside ourselves and examine our relationships. This production certainly achieves that – I lost myself entirely in the denouement, as a 150-year-old play made itself so present that it was as if the theatre was empty and there was nothing else aside from the revelations in the interior room I was hurtling headfirst towards.

London Theatre Duke of York TheatreBen Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer 

www.adollshouselondon.com

sweet bird of youth review

(Cover image Manuel Harlan) Sweet Bird of Youth – Tennessee Williams, The Old Vic, London.

This summer brings the revival of the tragic American raconteur – a figure hiding his past through the combination of cynical manipulation and wilful self-delusion, enjoying an overblown lifestyle until the edifice crumbles around them. Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby explores the lavish ends to which a character will go to create the illusion, but this production of Tennessee Williams’ 1959 play far better highlights the tragedy at its end.

Instead of West Egg we have St. Cloud, the quintessential Southern town on the outskirts of New Orleans, and instead of Gatsby we have the aptly named Chance Wayne, who – after failing to become an actor, but succeeding in becoming a gigolo to the rich older women passing through Florida – has his last chance at redemption in his return to his hometown.

His aim is to win back the heart of childhood sweetheart Heavenly Finley with the help of one of those Florida women, once successful actress Alexandra Del Lago (the excellently cast Kim Catrell), who travels under the false name Princess Kosmonopolis. She represents his final opportunity to make something of himself through a studio contract he waves in the faces of the skeptical St. Cloud residents.

Alongside chancer Chance, Williams has adopted an almost Dickensian approach to names – played with enthusiastically by the production team. St. Cloud is a dream to Chance, and the set, with towering columns, bleached lighting and flowing drapes, reflects this. Similarly, Louise Dylan as Chance’s impossible Heavenly – first referred to as looking like a dead body as she lies on the beach – floats across the stage, either as merely a silhouette, or a wan, pixie-haired Ophelia. Del Lago, shares her name with Rossinni’s opera ‘La Donna Del Lago’. Williams In this work, the titular lady of the lake – daughter of King James’ sworn enemy, meets the King travelling under a false name, with their love resolving the conflict in the kingdom. Catrell is perfect here, capturing the melodrama of a constantly-performing faded superstar, and the perverse desperation of an addict.

sweet bird of youth reviewsweet bird of youth review

Images Manuel Harlan

It is clear from the wheezing coughs that introduce Del Lago that she is no saviour. This is the first sign of the lingering sense of death that is everywhere in this play – Heavenly’s introduction, a threat hanging over Chance, and Del Lago’s view of her career. In Gatsby was are shown that death can, temporarily at least, be beaten by fast living. Here it cannot. The difference is that Gatsby shows the temporary defeat of class restrictions through the illusion of wealth, whereas The Sweet Bird of Youth shows the impossibility of avoiding the transition into adulthood. If the bright lights and ostentation of Gatsby jarred, this production could be the perfect antidote.

sweet bird of youth review

 

Ben Rackstraw
London Theatre Reviewer

 

Sweet Bird of Youth is Showing at the Old Vic till 31 August 2013. Buy tickets from Official London Theatre 

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