Review: Some Desert Cities, Old Vic

The road sign on the highway from Los Angeles airport says “Palm Springs and other desert cities” and that’s where this play is set. It starts with the conflict between the Republican, old Hollywood parents and their daughter, a liberal writer who has chosen to live in New England but is home for Christmas. It turns out that she has written an autobiographical book about the dead brother they never talk about and tension builds. Her brother tries to calm things down while her alcoholic aunt does her bit to stir things up. A brilliant observation of a dysfunctional family with some interesting plot twists I won’t mention. What seems cut and dried turns out to be that much more complicated and more fascinating. The Old Vic has been transformed to create a theatre in the round which works brilliantly, especially if you get a seat close to the stage (although the front row seats are very low so get the second row if you can). Sinéad Cusack as the mother, Peter Egan as the father and Martha Plimpton as the daughter all give unmissably brilliant performances, so make sure you don’t miss it.

Review: The Notorious Mrs Ebbsmith, Jermyn Street Theatre

This is the second Pinero play I’ve seen revived in the last couple of years; it was also by far the better production. The National Theatre’s production of The Magistrate tried too hard and was ultimately unsuccessful. With a teeny fraction of their resources, in a theatre smaller than the Olivier’s stage, this was successful. Written in 1895, 10 years after The Magistrate, it is a well crafted look at the role(s) of women in Victorian society and the dominance of the aristocracy. Rhiannon Sommers was superb as Mrs Ebbsmith, matched with yet another excellent performance from Christopher Ravenscroft. Straightforwardly and skilfully directed by Abbey Wright, it was produced by Primavera Productions formed by Tom Littler who also directed Dances of Death, my favourite play in a small theatre last year. I don’t intend to miss anything by them.

Review: LAC (after Swan Lake), Les Ballets de Monte Carlo

After a week with no chance to go to the theatre, it was great to catch two terrific performances yesterday, the first being the matinee of LAC. This updating of Swan Lake featured “Her Majesty of the Night” rather than Rothbart as the evil manipulator but was otherwise much the same story. It was a shame that it was performed to pre-recorded music, the quality of which was not as high as I would have liked, but everything else was marvelous, especially the terrific costumes by Philippe Guillotel. It was very much an ensemble production of a uniformly high standard so it is unfair to single out a specific performance, but the choreography by Jean-Christophe Maillot was energetic, flamboyant and passionate with a great touch of humour, often at the expense of Petipa’s original. It is a shame it was only half full for the matinee but you’d never have guessed it from the volume of the well deserved applause at the end. I do hope this vibrant, original company makes visiting London a regular event.

Review: Lest We Forget, English National Ballet

This was a hugely ambitious project – to commission three new dance works to commemorate the start of the First World War. It worked and all three of them knocked spots off the Royal Ballet’s effort with their revival of MacMillan’s Gloria earlier this year. Liam Scarlett’s No Man’s Land played with the title, referring to both the area between the front lines and to the women working in the munitions factory. All the leads were excellent, especially Alina Cojocaru, but I have to also praise Max Westwell as I ended up sitting next to his parents. This was followed by a revival of the Firebirdthe company premiered last year. The music is still wonderful and was brilliantly played by the ENB’s orchestra under Gavin Sutherland and the reduced choreography was an improvement on last year’s. Russell Maliphant’s Second Breath featured figures rising up only to fall to the ground again and again. It seemed a bit repetitive but that was the point, as the music featured recordings from the Imperial War Museum of soldiers from country after country listing the numbers of the fellow soldiers killed in the war. The most remarkable new work was Dust from Akram Khan, apparently his first work for a ballet company. His own astonishing dancing dominated, leaving me to wonder whether the choreography could stand up without him to dance. Luckily it was a question I didn’t need to ask as he both he and Tamara Rojo danced at the matinee as they had for the premiere the night before. I doubt I’ll see any better dance or ballet this year. As I was leaving the Barbican, a group of young people was just in front of me. One guy said to the others that it was the first time he’d cried in a theatre. He wasn’t the only one.

Review: Prince Igor, Novaya Opera

It’s odd to see a very traditional production of an opera performed in its original language at the Coliseum but this is not the ENO. The prologue and first act did not grab my attention, but Act 2 moves to the Polvtsian camp and the music lifts up wonderfully with the spectacular Polovtsian Dances. Act 3 is quite amazing, starting with a very simple and beautiful aria from Yaroslavna (Elena Popovskaya) wishing her husband, Prince Igor (Sergey Artamonov) were there. It then moves to the stunning a capella chorus as the people lament the loss of their land to the Polovtsians. Then it ends. Leaving out out the triumphant celebration which should follow may seem odd but it works – a beautiful ending to a rather mixed but unmissable production.

Review: Dark Vanilla Jungle, Soho Theatre

I never miss a chance to see a Philip Ridley play. Titles such as this and Mercury Fur tend to be incomprehensible but he writes extremely powerful plays that are unlike those of anyone else. Apart from the underlying power and a certain strangeness, each of his plays is also very different from the others. Gemma Whelan, who was excellent in One Man, Two Guvnors when I saw that at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, delivers an astonishingly emotional performance. This is the Soho Theatre Upstairs, so there is no stage, just the floor she stands on. There is also no scenery and there are no other actors. There is no explanation of why she is talking to us: is she in group therapy, giving a witness statement, a police interview or what? I have just deleted a long paragraph trying to give some of my thoughts on this play but it’s too difficult without givin the whole story. This is a deep, dark play that will stick in my mind for a very long time. Just go and see it and make your own mind up. One thing I’m sure you’ll agree on is that this is one of the best performances by any actor on any London stage today.

Review: The Little Mermaid, Ballet Theatre UK, touring

This is a tremendously ambitious production by this small touring company of young dancers. Sometimes I felt they might be pushing a bit too hard, particularly in the darker aspects of the story, leaving some of the younger members of the audience who didn’t know the story a bit restless. However, there is much that is glorious, particularly the terrific dancing to folk melodies in the opening part and the courtly dancing near the end. The dancer in the role of the mermaid was excellent and I wish I could credit her but unfortunately they were not selling programmes on Sunday at my local theatre, the Beck in Hayes and her mermaid make up was so good that I can’t work out who she was from the pictures on their website. If it comes near you then please make sure that you see it and, if you are taking young children, do make sure they know the story before they go.