This is a small but perfectly formed exhibition that runs at Tate Modern till next July. You can get a real sense of it in about 20 minutes, although it deserves a much longer and closer look. But if you’re in a hurry to see the other more famous displays on show on the South Bank, the first two rooms alone capture its essence. Start with Paul Klee’s wondrous watercolour Comedy, move on to George Grosz’s fabulously sleazy self-portrait, revel in the colours of Marc Chagall’s Green Donkey and then pop into the next room to marvel at Otto Dix’s gruesomely lowlife etchings – particularly The Butchers – and his brilliantly bloody watercolour Lust Murder. These pictures will tell you all you need to know about the national nightmare that engulfed Germany in the disastrous aftermath of the First World War.
My, how fortunate we are in Greenwich! Just ten days after a fabulous outdoor Measure For Measure at Severndroog Castle we were treated to an equally wonderful alfresco Much Ado About Nothing In St Alfege Park. This time it was the work of touring company Merely Theatre, who managed to capture every nuance of Shakespeare’s most perfect comedy with its double-dealing plot, double-meaning jokes and double-quick repartee. Mostly this was because of the players, who threw themselves into their doubled-up roles with skill, feeling and unbridled energy. Emmy Rose was terrific as bride-to-be Hero and also as her foul nemesis Don John, Simon Grujich made a fine Claudio and an even better Verges, Jennifer Shakesby shone as jobsworth Dogberry and patrician Don Pedro and Andrew Hislop was magnificently stately as Leonato and the Sexton. But the play really belongs to Benedick and Beatrice and they were brought brilliantly to life by Scott Ellis – doubling up hilariously as Hero’s maid – and by Alice Osmanski, who handled the wild swings between slapstick and joy with total credibility, even while they mingled with the audience (and dipped into their picnics) during their verbal jousting and jesting. Director Abigail Anderson also managed to add an extra dimension of fun by underlining the action with terrific interventions of pop music ranging from Cliff Richard’s 1962 No1 The Young Ones to Walk The Moon’s 2014 smash Shut Up And Dance by way of Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping. I don’t recall ever seeing a more breathlessly entertaining – or easier to understand – version of this play. I look forward to the next time Merely Theatre are in town.
It’s self-evident that a great play can be ruined by a below-par cast – no doubt we all have any number of examples in our memories. But the reverse is also true, as New Light Production’s staging of Penelope Skinner’s Eigengrau at Greenwich Theatre proved. The play calls itself an urban fairytale and follows the romantic adventures of four people living in London. It’s full of truly terrific comic one-liners – so full, in fact, that there’s almost no time left for the narrative. As for the characters, they were little more than ciphers – and walking cliché ciphers at that. But despite the problems, the cast – directed by Aoife Smyth – was absolutely tremendous, with Joseph Holdroyd as granny-fixated saddo Tim, Katharine Hardman as ultra-feminist Cassie, Joseph McCarthy as misogynist Mark and Robyn Wilson as fantasist Rose giving it their all and ensuring the audience had plenty to enjoy. And I must pay tribute to Katharine Davies-Herbst’s set. In an era when sets tend to be minimalist in the extreme, hers made a significant contribution to creating an authentic atmosphere for the drama.
There weren’t any of those swinging Disney songs in Greenwich Theatre’s production of The Jungle Book but that didn’t stop it being tremendous fun which more than deserved the ovation it was given by a sell-out audience. Using Tracey Power’s faithful adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling classic, director James Haddrell and his super-talented cast, all playing multiple roles, gave us a show of energy, exuberance, entertainment and emotion that enchanted the watching families. There were only five actors on the stage yet they managed to make it feel as if there were a dozen.
My granddaughters Maisie, 12, and seven-year-old Isobel particularly loved Joseph Black in his main role of Baloo the bear and Kandaka Moore as snivelling jackal Tabaqui. But they also adored Antonia Elson as Mowgli, David Hubball as Bagheera the panther and the evil tiger Shere Khan and Serin Ibrahim as chief wolf Akela and Kaa the snake. So did I. I also loved the clever quick-change collar-and-cuffs costumes of Cleo Pettitt, who designed the excellent tropical set as well. Her contribution was the cherry on the cake for what was the perfect way to spend an afternoon in the long school holidays.
I love the way drama company Changeling make theatre. Everything I’ve ever seen them do is heartfelt, real, immersive, leftfield – and terrific fun. Their production of Shakespeare’s dark comedy Measure For Measure, staged at twilight in the woods surrounding magical Severndroog Castle, was as good as anything I have reviewed all year. Directed by Robert Forknall and designed by Robin Soutar, the multitalented performers acted, sang and played instruments with such skill and joie de vivre that it was impossible not to be entranced by this tale of love, loss and redemption. It would be invidious to single out any one member of the cast because they were all marvellous – Cameron Butterwick, Jennifer Clement, Hannah Etheridge, Marc Mackinnon, Toby Manley, Jess Nesling, Charlotte Palmer, Jake Setters and Robin Willingham were pitch-perfect in their multiple roles. And, of course, the play boasts one of the finest of all Shakespearean character names – Pompey Bum the pimp – and the funniest ever euphemism for sex: Groping for trouts in a peculiar river. The labyrinthine plot may be dodgy but killer lines delivered by a brilliant cast made this a night to remember.
Some of the most innovative public performance art I’ve ever seen graced Giffin Square, Deptford, over thee weekends in August. Four pieces, presented by the Albany as part of the London-wide Circulate festival, were moulded in the white heat of the creative crucible in which dance meets circus – and transmutes into gold. The Deptford leg of the festival began with Belly Of The Whale, which was one of the hits of Greenwich Fair in June. It involved Amanda Homa, Nathan Johnson and Stefano di Renzo tumbling, soaring and tightrope-walking on a huge rocking wood-and-steel seesaw to a live soundtrack composed and played by Gabriele Pierro on keyboards and mandolin. It was brilliant. The following weekend, Catalan company Cia Moveo gave us Conseqüències, a mix of dance and acrobatics with lots of audience participation about cause and effect and about being out of step with the rest of the world. Dancers Marta Hervás, Xavier Palomino, Núria Planes, Adrià Viñas and Pino Steiner made this a life-affirming as well as a beautiful experience through the sheer joy of their performances. They were followed by some fabulous bodypopping by kids on a summer street-dance course at the Albany. And the show was closed by Cie Dyptik, who gave us D-Construction, a hiphop piece with amazing ensemble dancing and acrobatic fence-climbing set to thunderous score melding ghetto beats and Indian voices and horns. The work, which contrasted unity and uniqueness, social obligations and freedom, was both immersive and intimate thanks to the consummate skill of the cast – Elias Ardoin, Evan Greenaway, Samir El Fatoumi, Yohann Daher, Katia Lharaig and Emilie Tarpin-Lyonnet. Circulate’s Deptford dates ended a week later on a wet Saturday afternoon with Motionhouse’s stunning work EXO which featured two humans, Martina Knight and Alasdair Stewart, and a giant JCB digger driven by Bill Power.
After a long delay while the surfaces were dried with paper towels following torrential rain, the dancers climbed all over the JCB and swayed in its buckets as it sped balletically round an area no bigger than a tennis court, raising the pair high in the air in gravity-defying arcs. At one point Stewart lost his grip on the damp metal and fell 10ft on to the paving below. The crowd gasped in horror – but mercifully he was only bruised and gamely climbed back up. The programme described this as a thrilling exploration of the relationship between man and machine. I agree – this was about as thrilling as it gets. And who would have thought a JCB can dance like a real trouper?