Review: Hamlet: Rotten States at The Hope Theatre

It’s Hamlet, but not quite as we know it. For one thing, Hamlet’s not actually in it. But Brian Blessed is. Sort of.

With Hamlet: Rotten States, 6FootStories return to the three-actor format of their acclaimed Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury, which was first performed at the Hope a few years ago. In this case, the three actors (Will Bridges, Amy Fleming and Jake Hassam) are, in fact, actors – specifically, the players who visit court and are promptly recruited by Hamlet to recreate the murder of his father and in doing so catch the conscience of the king. But things are about to get more complicated for our players, who are visited by the ghost of Hamlet’s father and charged with avenging his death. And so Shakespeare’s play within a play becomes a play within a play within a play, as the three set out to answer the ghost’s challenge and reawaken Hamlet’s purpose in the only way they can think of.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

This naturally involves a bit of playing around with the original text, but the result is still a coherent, if incredibly brief, retelling of Hamlet’s story. The three performers are clearly enjoying themselves as they whisk us through the key events, dividing the principal roles and speeches between them, and filling in the inevitable gaps with puppetry and props. There are song and dance routines, overblown death scenes, and sword fighting without actual swords; Gertrude appears only as a floating head, and the murder of Gonzago is portrayed using toby jugs. Oh, and the dead king looks a lot like a fiercely grinning Brian Blessed.

Needless to say, there’s a distinctly mischievous tone to the production that die-hard fans of both Shakespeare and his tragic masterpiece may find hard to stomach. But it’s important to note that there’s no lack of respect here either; while the text may be somewhat rearranged to suit the show’s purpose, we still get the core plot in the right order, and speeches delivered with appropriate passion and reverence where required. The fact that the performers then immediately break character to congratulate themselves on the quality and content of said delivery is great comedy, but it also helps the audience appreciate afresh the dramatic power of Shakespeare’s language.

Photo credit: Matthew Koltenborn

Reducing four hours of action into one necessarily calls for high energy and a pretty brisk pace, and a pumping electronic soundtrack and flashing disco lights – all managed on stage by the actors themselves – complement this well. Unlike the original, in which every action is mulled over a thousand times, this is very much “blink and you’ll miss it” Hamlet, which keeps the audience focused throughout. The production walks the line well between familiarity and originality; those who know the play well can sit back and laugh at the numerous inside jokes, while for newcomers there’s enough here for them to follow the story, and perhaps spark an interest in seeing a more traditional retelling. Cheeky but respectful fun, this entertaining show guarantees a good time for all.

Hamlet: Rotten States is at The Hope Theatre until 1st February.

Review: The Invisible Man at Brockley Jack Studio

At first glance, the Brockley Jack’s choice for their final show of the year doesn’t seem particularly festive. But while it may not be a Christmas story – nor, in its original form, a particularly cheery one – The Invisible Man proves to be another winner for the theatre’s in-house creative team, and easily as entertaining as the best panto in town.

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

Based on the H.G. Wells novel and adapted for the stage by Derek Webb, The Invisible Man finds us in the small English village of Iping, where a stranger wrapped in bandages (Shaun Chambers) has just taken a room at the pub. Bad-tempered and mysterious, he’s quickly viewed with suspicion by the locals, among them his landlady Mrs Hall (Matthew Parker) and the village doctor, Cuss (Scott Oswald). When his secret is revealed, the Invisible Man – a scientist unable to reverse his own discovery – embarks on a reign of terror against anyone who stands in his way.

In Webb’s adaptation, fifteen characters are played by three actors – with all the ensuing chaos that ratio implies. And yet it’s perfectly managed chaos in the hands of director Kate Bannister, costume designer Martin Robinson, and of course the multi-talented cast, each of whom juggles their various roles with great enthusiasm, and without missing a beat. Wisely, both script and production openly acknowledge the multi-roling aspect, and play it for maximum laughs, delighting the audience with tongue-in-cheek observations like the fact that the three policemen (all played by Chambers) all look alike, or that Dr Cuss must always carry a medical bag to avoid confusion.

As you might expect from a show in which the main character is invisible, the production also pulls off some impressive magic tricks. Karl Swinyard’s set is deceptive in its simplicity; there are several hidden secrets waiting to be discovered as the story unfolds. Wine glasses hang in mid-air, signposts turn all by themselves, and the actors – Scott Oswald, in particular – hold entire conversations, including physical interactions, with thin air. (And they do it so successfully that it’s almost possible to believe there really is an invisible man up on stage with them.)

Photo credit: Davor@The Ocular Creative

For all the comedy, however, the show does follow Wells’ original plot pretty closely, so inevitably there are some serious moments. The Invisible Man is the target of suspicion in Iping because he’s different and doesn’t fit any of the traditional village stereotypes, and it’s ultimately this isolation that pushes him on to a dark path. There’s a political element too; he speaks more than once about the dangers of capitalism, claiming he wants to steal from the bankers and redistribute their wealth – a particularly topical reference given recent events.

We’ve come to expect great things from the Brockley Jack team, and once again this production does not disappoint. Already a compelling story, this adaptation keeps us entertained and enthralled with its slapstick humour and just the right amount of playful audience engagement, but never detracts from the story’s more solemn themes. A thoroughly enjoyable alternative to the more traditional Christmas fare – get your hands on a ticket if you can.

The Invisible Man is at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th January.

Review: Snow White at Chickenshed

The run-up to Christmas means different things to different people. For the team at Chickenshed, it means it’s time once again for the challenge of putting 800 people on stage in the company’s final production of the year. Not all at once – there are four casts rotating throughout the six-week run – but still, it’s no mean feat to direct 200 people at a time, particularly when the majority of them are children.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

This year, the inclusive theatre company bring us an alternative Snow White. Written and directed by Lou Stein, it’s set in 1960s London, with a feminist plot twist and a heartwarming message about inner beauty, the redemptive power of forgiveness and the importance of staying true to yourself no matter what. Oh, and there’s a couple of really, really catchy tunes that will stay in your head all the way home, whether you like it or not. In other words, it’s the very definition of a Chickenshed Christmas show.

The show isn’t technically a panto – though I was tempted to boo more than once at Sarah Connolly’s gleefully convincing wicked stepmother Jane De Villiers – but it has roughly the same format: lots of musical numbers, a fairly lightweight plot, fabulous costumes, random superfluous characters, a swift and somewhat implausible happy ending, and a little bit of audience participation. There’s even a man in a dress, courtesy of Ashley Driver, who totally steals the show as Jane’s delightfully sassy Mirror. If Kinky Boots ever makes a comeback (please, theatre gods) – I know who I’ll be backing to play Lola.

A bit of romance is also, of course, on the agenda (this is a fairy tale, after all), and Cara McInanny and Nathaniel Leigertwood make an engaging pair as Snow White and security guy/single dad Jason. McInanny has a beautiful voice, and really shines in the musical numbers as her character tries to understand who she is and where she belongs. But there are lighter moments too; the scene in which Jason “kills” Snow White on her stepmother’s orders, for instance, is both a bit surreal and very funny.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Perhaps inevitably, given the sheer number of people involved, there are a few issues with acoustics and it’s sometimes difficult to make out all the lyrics to Dave Carey’s 60s-inspired songs (unless you happen to know BSL, as the whole show is also signed). What the musical numbers sometimes lack in vocal clarity, however, they more than make up for in terms of choreography and sheer enthusiasm. As previously mentioned, at times there are 200 people on stage, and to see them all dancing, singing and having fun together is not only an impressive directorial achievement; it also sums up exactly what Chickenshed is all about. As always, their Christmas show is a festive treat that’s guaranteed to warm your heart and send you home feeling a little bit better about the world. Who can say no to that?

Snow White is at Chickenshed until 11th January.

Review: Rules for Living at Tower Theatre

First performed at the National in 2015, Sam Holcroft’s dark festive comedy Rules for Living starts out simply enough. Brothers Adam (Dickon Farmar) and Matthew (Adam Hampton-Matthews) have come home to spend Christmas Day with their mum Edith (Rosanna Preston) and convalescing father Francis (Tom Tillery). They’re accompanied by Adam’s wife Sheena (Hattie Hahn) and daughter Emma (Helena Braithwaite), and Matthew’s new girlfriend Carrie (Kasia Chodurek), and it doesn’t take long for the audience to realise this is a family with issues – though it’s only as the play unfolds that we begin to appreciate just how dysfunctional they really are.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

Entertainment based on nightmare family celebrations is, of course, nothing new – you only have to turn on Eastenders on Christmas Day to see that. But what makes this play unique is a twist inspired by the concept of cognitive behavioural therapy. The actions of each member of the party are governed by a seemingly arbitrary rule, which is made known to the audience but not to the other characters. Matthew, for instance, must sit down to tell a lie, while his brother Adam must adopt a silly accent whenever he’s mocking someone. It’s all good fun to begin with, not least for the audience as we keep an eye out for each character’s rule in action. But what starts as a game soon turns into a bitter dispute, with each character so focused on scoring points against the rest that it never occurs to them this could be a game with no winners.

The play is a challenging one to stage, with the script demanding a degree of choreography and meticulous attention to detail – but director John Chapman rises to the task admirably in this accomplished new production at the Tower Theatre. The excellent cast, too, who display expert comic timing and complete conviction throughout, enthusiastically seize the opportunity to bring their dysfunctional characters to full three-dimensional life. This is not a play where two characters speak while everyone else sits around doing nothing; whether it’s Adam Hampton-Matthews and Dickon Farmar making silent but fervent rude hand gestures at each other behind the others’ backs, or Kasia Chodurek and Hattie Hahn’s hilarious range of facial expressions, there’s always something to look at, and we learn just as much – if not more – about their relationships with each other from observing their reactions.

Photo credit: David Sprecher

The game-play element is portrayed through the use of a screen, upon which each new rule is displayed just at the opportune moment, and which in Act 2 converts into a scoreboard as the “game” begins to heat up. This part of the play becomes quite complex, especially once all the characters start talking at once, but it also lends the play a clever and interesting new dimension that actively engages the audience and encourages us to listen to what each of the characters is revealing about themselves every time they speak or act.

Perhaps not your traditional feel-good festive show, but we’ll have plenty of those to choose from in London this month. So for something a bit different (and a few lessons on what not to say to the family this Christmas), this entertaining, high-quality production is highly recommended.

Rules for Living is at Tower Theatre until 7th December.

Review: White Christmas at Dominion Theatre

Like it or not, the festive season is well and truly upon us – and nowhere more so than at the Dominion Theatre, home until the new year to the West End transfer of White Christmas, following its critically acclaimed run last year at Leicester Curve. A glitzy, joyous and unashamedly cheesy spectacle with a stellar cast, this revival of Irving Berlin’s festive musical will undoubtedly send even the most determined of Scrooges away feeling at least a little bit Christmassy.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Which is funny, really, since most of the show doesn’t have much to do with the holiday season, and for most of the evening it’s easy to forget we’re watching a Christmas show at all. Set in 1954, the plot follows soldiers turned Broadway stars Bob Wallace (Danny Mac) and Phil Davis (Dan Burton), as they team up with singing sisters Betty (Danielle Hope) and Judy Haynes (Clare Halse) to put on a spectacular new show. Their goal is to save a struggling Vermont inn, owned by their much-respected former general Henry Waverly (Michael Brandon) and managed by no-nonsense concierge Martha Watson (Brenda Edwards). Along the way, naturally, there are misunderstandings and miscommunications – but eventually everything sorts itself out, everyone falls in love, and it starts snowing just in time for their Christmas celebrations.

The production, directed by Nikolai Foster and choreographed by Stephen Mear, is undeniably brilliant. Highly polished and visually stunning, it showcases the talent and charisma of an exceptional cast. Leading men Danny Mac and Dan Burton are an effortlessly charming duo, and Danielle Hope and Clare Halse prove more than a match for them as the glamorous and accomplished Haynes sisters. The choreography and design are exquisite, and there are moments in the show – particularly during the lavish dance numbers, and any time the magnificent Brenda Edwards is on stage – that genuinely take your breath away.

While everything about the production is of the highest quality, the same can’t necessarily be said of the show itself, which sometimes struggles under the burden of a weak and dated storyline, and songs that are – with one or two obvious exceptions – not particularly memorable or relevant to what’s going on. (Which is not to say they’re not catchy; there’s a song about snow in Act 1 whose lyrics make no sense at all, but it’s still incredibly hard to sit still through it.)

Photo credit: Johan Persson

Still, it’s difficult to be too bothered by any of this because, well, it’s Christmas… Maybe it’s not perfect, and it certainly takes a while to get warmed up – but sometimes a bit of feel-good festive escapism is all you need, and on that front the show delivers in style. Before long the stage is overflowing with so much joy, romance and goodwill to all that ultimately, much like the snow song, this White Christmas proves impossible to resist.

White Christmas is at the Dominion Theatre until 4th January.