Arts

Theatre: Give this bonkers Cold War Woyzeck a miss

Woyzeck: Stefan Rhodri (left) as the Captain, with John Boyega as Woyzeck

Georg Büchner wrote Woyzeck in 1837, the year he died, aged 23. There was no definitive text, just fragments of paper. It wasn’t performed for more than 70 years. It is widely regarded as the first modern play and a forerunner of the social dramas of the 19th century. Alban Berg’s 1925 adaptation memorably converted it for opera.

This bleak and brutal story is based on a real-life murder case. It’s written in a series of short, sharp, expressionistic scenes, and is a fierce indictment of the way people treats people on the bottom rung of the society’s ladder.

At the Old Vic, director Joe Murphy’s intention is to make Büchner more accessible to a broader audience. The storyline has been updated to the Cold War, and set in Berlin in 1981. Woyzeck is a British soldier still suffering traumas experienced during active service in Belfast. John Boyega looks too healthy, too muscular, too well fed, too intelligent and not destitute enough. His performance is at its most striking in the final act when he goes completely bonkers.

The production is a slow burner and is never as harrowing as it ought to be. There is, however, a lot of vulgar language, gratis nudity and energetic sex.

Comedian Miranda Hart is making her West End debut as the gin-sodden matron of the orphanage in the Broadway musical Annie, which presumably would not be being revived at the Piccadilly Theatre if she were not in it. Her fans may even be satisfied with her performance. Totally innocent, utterly sentimental, Annie is the perfect musical for little girls. Something needs to be done about the sound; the amplified singers are screeching loudly.

Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, the story of three sailors let loose on New York, was a ballet and a Broadway musical long before it became a much-loved film. Dance-led, it needs a witty choreographer who is also a director, and dancers with a gift for comedy. Drew McOnie is one of the best, and he and his cast are on lively form at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park. Great fun.

Federico Fellini’s La Strada made him internationally famous. Filmed in bleak and impoverished post-war Italy, it is remembered for its neorealism, the performances by Anthony Quinn and Giulietta Masina, with a haunting score by Nino Rota.

Sally Cookson’s interpretation at The Other Palace makes no attempt to recreate the neorealism. It’s always a theatre show. There is music, song, movement, mime, circus, and clever use of sound and lighting. The actors and musicians are an ensemble. The production is remarkable for its fluidity, constantly transforming itself, conjuring up different scenes out of nowhere with the minimum of props and the maximum use of body language.

Dion Boucicault’s famous anti-slavery melodrama The Octoroon, premiered in 1859, well before the American Civil War. I have longed to see it and wished Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, had staged Boucicault rather than an adaptation by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.

Edward Fox recites poems and light verse and tells anecdotes and jokes, in his one-man touring show, Sand in the Sandwiches, an affectionate celebration of John Betjeman.