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Best of 2018: London Theatre

by PETER MASON

STEVEN BERKOFF'S East is not easy to stage, but, in January, director Jessica Lazar and her cast of five made the absolute most of what they had to work with at the King's Head.

 

There were highly impressive performances by two actors fresh out of drama school from Boadicea Ricketts as the earthily confident young Sylv and Jack Condon as the bored, street-fighting shoe-shop assistant Les but the standout was 25-year-old James Craze as Mike, who coped with the physical and emotional gymnastics of his Jack the Lad part as if it had been written directly for him, rather than first performed almost two decades before his birth.

 

Whatever the flaws in Berkoff's acerbic take on East End working class life, the collective quality of the cast helped to bring out its occasionally spellbinding attributes. And, this being the Kings Head, there was the bonus of being able to chat briefly with the actors in the bar afterwards. Fringe theatre at its best.

 

Any play has a head start if it’s staged in summer at the open-air Regents Park theatre but Shakespeare's As You Like It especially benefits from its magical tree-lined surroundings, which perfectly conjure up the woodland environment to which Orlando and Rosalind both retreat.

 

Director Max Webster chose a modern staging for the play, with the opening scenes taking place in antiseptic corporate offices surrounded by litter. Thereafter we luxuriated in a homely arboreal setting that acted as a perfect backdrop for Shakespeare’s light-hearted consideration of the contrast between shallow urban existence and the more spiritually connected life of the land.

 

There were fabulous performances all round, with a new-age, dreadlocked Maureen Beattie taking full advantage of her role as the curmudgeonly Jaques and Danny Kirrane and Amy Booth-Steel playing the overwrought lovers Touchstone and Audrey to great comic effect.

 

Olivia Vinall was outstanding as Rosalind, with her thigh-slapping attempts at feigned masculinity essayed above a beguilingly feminine undertow. Joyful, playful and delightfully funny in all the right places, Webster's production deserved far greater exposure than its short three-week run.  

 

Pinocchio at the National Theatre left me happy and spellbound. Every scene offered new delight as a mixture of technical wizardry and canny stagecraft conveyed the strange toings and froings at the heart of Pinocchio’s hallucinatory story.

 

Many of the passages, including the journey to rescue Geppetto from a whale’s stomach and the final disappearance of the blue fairy, were so beautiful that they brought tears to the eye.

 

David Langham was magnificent as the dastardly fox in glam-rock boots who lures Pinocchio into trouble and Audrey Brisson, flitting elegantly around the floor with her Jiminy Cricket puppet, was brilliant in portraying Pinocchio’s wise counsellor as a fussy hypochondriac.

 

Joe Idris-Roberts played Pinocchio with the right blend of selfish pig-headedness and cute innocence and, while some critics thought the production was too adult-oriented and scary for children, kids appeared to be transfixed, as was just about everybody else.

 

Every ingredient fed into a highly successful mix, with all in the right balance and each part as excellent as the other — music, puppetry, dance, acting and technical sorcery.

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