Saturday, 31 October 2009

Review: Inherit The Wind

"I don't want to believe that we come from monkeys and apes, but I guess that's kinda besides the point"

Inherit The Wind is a courtroom drama, based on the true life story of a Tennessee schoolteacher who was threatened with imprisonment for teaching Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution, in direct contravention of school policy. A highly strung court case then follows, pitching creationists against evolutionists, and bringing two legal titans to a small town in Tennessee to argue the case, the ramifications of which clearly extend beyond that classroom in the Deep South. Its timing seems uncanny: even on the 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin of Species, a highly recommended (by me at least) film Creation, about Darwin's struggles with his own faith as he wrote it, has not been able to find a distributor in the US because it is considered too 'controversial' in a country where allegedly barely a third of the population actually believe in evolution.

The scale of this production really is admirably epic: the staging is superb, with the Old Vic's stage being opened up to a great depth (you could probably fit the stage for Annie Get Your Gun on there 15 times over!), the already healthy cast is ably bolstered by a phalanx of supernumaries, bringing the total company to 50 bodies who bring an authentic air of claustrophobic small-town living to several scenes, most notably the prayer meeting just before the trial. The use of hymns sung by the company during scene changes further reinforces this strong sense of a community joined by the power of their faith.

Such largesse however does need to be matched by strong acting, and in the two leads of David Troughton as the Bible-bashing and frustrated politician Matthew Harrison Brady and Kevin Spacey as the more free-thinking and sharply comic Henry Drummond, Inherit The Wind more than delivers with two powering, barn-storming performances. It is a sheer delight to watch these two go at each other during the trial scene which is worth the ticket price alone, but they both delivered throughout, Troughton's subtle hints of humanity through the bluster of his people-pleaser just edging it for me. And in a sea of supporting roles, Mark Dexter as the sceptical visiting journalist was a standout for me, with a cracking line about rancid butter that I can't quite fully recall.

As for the play itself, whilst it contains little in terms of intellectual debate on the key issues (or maybe because of this) it is highly entertaining, and offers a strong argument for tolerance in an ever-more polarised world. My only real criticism would be the use of a real monkey on stage. I felt it added nothing of value to the performance, and it looked desperately unhappy, clutching onto the leash about its neck throughout: I'm not even particularly an animal lover, but this made me sad. That aside, I would highly recommend this show (and then go and see Creation at the cinema).

Cast of Inherit the Wind continued

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Review: Pains of Youth

"People should just shoot themselves at 17. Everything after is a disappointment."

Written by Ferdinand Bruckner, the alias of the German Theodor Tagger, in 1929, Pains of Youth enters the rep at the Cottesloe Theatre and is the latest play to be directed at the NT by Katie Mitchell, known for her interpretative style and creative use of multimedia techniques, but only the former is in evidence here. It is presented in a new version by Martin Crimp, thereby renewing the creative partnership with Mitchell which has seen recent productions of works like The Seagull and Attempts on her Life, both also at the NT.

It is described as shocking and erotically-charged, which instantly means that it is neither of these things. Set in a Viennese boarding-house in 1923, a group of medical students negotiate the trials and tribulations of their sexually entangled lives, against the backdrop of the recently ended First World War. With an ever-revolving carousel of relationships and interactions, all are struggling to escape the disillusionment of their existence, but choose wildly different paths in order to achieve this.

The six students and one maid make up quite a dislikeable bunch of protagonists, there's a lot of self-indulgent flailing around and ridiculous posturing: "you only make love to your pain" being a personal favourite. This is not a problem in itself, but for the fact that their alleged decadence in their post-war malaise is really quite dull and I did not find it at all engaging, so I couldn't have cared less about any of them. For all the promise of erotic charge, there was very little sexual chemistry on stage between any of the characters, only Geoffrey Streatfeild coming close to exuding the necessary magnetism for his cruelly manipulative Freder.
The staging of the Viennese drawing room is quite traditional, given Mitchell's pedigree, but where her influence is apparent is in the manner of the scene changes. The action periodically freezes onstage and besuited, futuristic Men-In-Black types appear to rearrange the sets, producing new props in little plastic bags and popping the props from the just-ended scene in bags as well before departing the stage and allowing the action to proceed. It is extremely random, but I thought it added a kooky sense of puppetry to the production, these actors on stage are just being manipulated by an unknown body, towards their ultimate destinies.

However, there is an awful lot of this messing around with the plastic bags, and whilst the artier side of me could kind of see where they were going with this, the length it took to bag up every flower and teacup in the big scene change in Act 1 nearly drove me to just leaning over, grabbing one of the plastic bags and smothering myself so that I didn't have to sit
through any more.

If the idea of people from the future putting on a fatally dull puppet show in which little of any interest happens, then this is the show for you. I couldn't really tell what Bruckner (or Crimp's) intent was in terms of story-telling: assuming this was the generation that was instrumental in allowing the rise of Nazism ten years later, the potential for an interesting look at the genesis of their complicity is surely there, but just not in a trite look at their bedhopping. Personally, I would save your money and look at your own plastic bags

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Review: The Turn Of The Screw

"There is nothing to fear here. Nothing could go wrong..."

Britten's opera, The Turn of the Screw, is based on the novella by Henry James and is about an idealistic but inexperienced governess sent to care for two children, Flora and Miles, at an English estate. Returning to the Coliseum for six performances after a successful 2007 run, this production maintains three of its original cast, and a conductor, Sir Charles Mackerras, who last conducted this opera in 1956!

Essentially, this is a Victorian ghost story, albeit one which much ambiguity and the suggestion of a harrowing past of child abuse. At first, the governess is charmed by her charges and comforted by the companionability of the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose. Soon, however, ominous things begin to happen, and the governess encounters what seem to be the ghosts of two former employees: the last governess Mrs. Jessel and Peter Quint the former master's valet. There is a hint that something unsavory happened between the children and these domestics, but this has not ended, despite their deaths, leading the current governess to pursue the truth, regardless of the consequences.

Britten's spooky score was performed with diamond precision by the chamber orchestra, the air of tension never far away, and a number of excellent solos were impressive. Rebecca Evans as the governess was superb, her voice being equally strong no matter where on the register she wa singing, and she brought real emotion to her every word. Elsewhere, I was particularly fond of Ann Murray's Mrs Grose, her starched performance perfectly suiting the role of the disbelieving housekeeper. And Nazan Fikret and Charlie Manton as the two children more than held their own against these seasoned professionals, and I have to mention Manton's extremely impressive piano playing miming which from my seat looked extremely convincing.

The staging is very sparse, brilliantly evocative of a Victorian horror story from the start (never has a rocking-horse seemed so creepy) and transitions between scenes were excellently executed by a number of a silent maids and butlers and an ingenious system of a series of sliding panels which never seemed intrusive. The lighting was also particlarly effective in creating the requisite haunted mood of this archetypal English stately home and in creating a real sense of intimacy on a massive stage.

James' original novella has long been the source of much debate, and this leads to the only real problem that I had with this production. There are numerous interpretations of the story, mostly around whether the ghosts are really there or just part of the Governess' imagination, and I felt that here, they were trying to have the best of both worlds and maintain the ambiguity too much. The extent to which the ghosts interacted with the children and indeed sing, strongly suggests their malevolent presence as something of the supernatural. However, Evans' portrayal of the anguished Governess often tended to the desperate side with much crumpling to the ground and combined with Miles' flirtatiousness, this left me feeling like they were making the case for it all being in her head. Certainly though, this production does not shy away from considering her equally responsible for the final tragedy, no matter what form this particular evil took.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Review: An Inspector Calls

"We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other."
Despite being a much-lauded and much-travelled production, and a mainstay of many a GCSE English Lit exam, An Inspector Calls has completely passed me by until now, my first engagement with this play. Time and the Conways at the National was my first Priestley play earlier this year, so I was interested to see another of his plays, especially one so well known. Representing the other side of the coin was my companion for the evening, Aunty Jean a former English teacher who knew the play inside out, so we had the makings of an intriguing night at the theatre.

JB Priestley's period thriller, adapted here by Stephen Daldry, opens in 1912 with the self-satisfied Birling family celebrating the engagement of daughter Sheila to Gerald Croft. Oozing wealth and pomposity, Arthur Birling takes the opportunity to share his theories on money and success along with the glories of being on the right side of the social divide. Interrupting this cozy evening strides Inspector Goole, who informs them a young local girl has killed herself just hours before. As he quizzes them about her sacking, pregnancy and suicide, the previously composed family gradually falls apart as various revelations about their involvement with the girl come to the surface and how each of them contributed to her downfall.

The set is a sight to behold with an exaggerated sense of perspective adding a disorienting effect, but the Birlings' house is really something else. Throughout the play, the house visually represents the fortunes of the family in a way that took me completely by surprise! Perched on stilts, with dolls-house dimensions, the house perfectly exemplifies the social hierarchy that affords the Birlings' their upper-class arrogance and lack of a sense of responsibility. And this is what really shines through in this production, is the indictment of the way in which the upper and middle classes have treated their working class brethren.

Less clear to me was the setting of the play in different time periods: I think we reached the consensus that although the family and their house were in 1912, the rest of the set, and so the world that the Birlings were interacting with was actually 1944 (when the play was written), suggesting that the actions of society in 1912 were responsible for the terrible events of the two World Wars. Although looking back on it, I wonder whether Daldry's intention wasn't to indicate simply that the upper classes hadn't learned their lesson even then.

Still, this was a surprisingly enjoyable evening out. Strong ensemble acting, stirring Hitchcockian music, and the noir-ish staging made this an impressive production, with a timely reminder that we must never forget our social consciences and the way in which we treat those around us, especially those less fortunate.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Review: The Spanish Tragedy

"Vengeance is mine. Ay, heaven will revenged of every ill"

The Spanish Tragedy was written by Thomas Kyd in the 16th century and is regarded as one of the first ever examples of the revenge tragedy. Kyd's play proved to be highly influential on other Elizabethan writers such as Marlowe, Jonson and indeed Shakespeare, Hamlet in particular takes much inspiration from several key elements of this play. It is presented here at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, one of the most interesting fringe venues in London, with a great cafe and bar for pre/post-show interactions.

In the aftermath of a bloody war, the royal leaders of war-torn Spain and Portugal plan a marriage between their families in the hope of forging peace. But the bride already has a secret lover. When he is murdered to make way for the new groom, his father Hieronimo is forced down a brutal path of vengeance from which there is no return. Watched throughout by the ghost of a soldier and Revenge, personified here by a chillingly played, creepy little girl, there seems no doubt about the inexorable path of vengeance that Hieronimo takes, the implication being that their supernatural influence is guiding the grieving father. Yet the heart of the play is more about the human reaction to being wronged, and the pervasive need for retribution, no matter the consequences.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Review: Cymbeline

"Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust"

One of William Shakespeare's later, and lesser well-known plays, Cymbeline is presented here at the Arts Theatre by the National Youth Theatre, in a rare sojourn out of their regular summer performances.

It is not really hard to see why Cymbeline is one of the lesser known works of the Bard. The story feels like a random selection of typical Shakespearean events, flung together haphazardly, and then tied up with a bow at the end in a rather laboured fashion. There's cross-dressing princesses, wagers about virtue, long-lost princes, potions that feign death, wicked stepmothers, lifelong betrayals, all things that hark back to previous works and little that felt fresh here, not least because of the confusing tone of the play.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Review: The York Realist

"Foxes their dens have they
Birds have their nests so gay
But the son of man
Has not where his head may rest."

The York Realist was one of Peter Gill's most well-known plays, and was revived at Hammersmith's Riverside Studios, a theatre co-founded by Gill, as part of his 70th birthday celebrations. It tells the story of George, a Yorkshire farm worker content with his lot in life, until his participation in a production of the York Mystery Plays throws open a new world of possibilities and choices. He discovers a talent for acting, and a relationship with the assistant director blossoms, leading him to the chance of a career acting on the stage in London. But his ties to his home life are incredibly strong, most notably in the form of his ailing mother, and George finds himself torn between these two worlds, these opposing facets to his life which he finds impossible to reconcile.

The play works best when it is observing the minutiae of daily living in a small rural community, and Stephanie Fayerman as the mother is wonderful, with lines full of the type of Northern humour espoused by Victoria Wood and Alan Bennett. Stephen Hagan as George is really good, with a great line in dark and brooding suggesting the torment raging beneath the gruff farmer's exterior, but I was less keen on Matthew Burton's John, although I suspect that was as much to do with his character as anything. The main problem for me though was that their performances together were basically too convincing: I just didn't believe that they couldn't (or wouldn't) work things out, and that leaving them apart felt very much like a purely dramatic decision to allow for maximum angst.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Review: Annie Get Your Gun

"Jumping Jehosaphat, well if it ain't the damndest thing I ever did see."

Running right through to January, the Young Vic has set a lot into Annie Get Your Gun, their longest running production to date. Starring Jane Horrocks as the sharp-shooting Annie Oakley, this musical contains some incredibly well-known songs, and so would seem like a fairly safe bet.

First off, the look of the whole show really is quite arresting, and not in a good way. It instantly evokes 'school show' as it really does look cheap and shabby, and the lack of depth in the stage is highlighted every time there's more than 4 people on stage as they are having to carefully negotiate their way around each other and the props without tumbling off. And on top of that, the design is really quite unsuited to the venue. Such a wide, shallow stage means that people sat towards either edge of the auditorium have severe difficulties in seeing the action when it moves to the other side. And the use of a cutaway above the stage means the front few rows miss the final scene (and the one shirtless moment!). Given that it is unreserved seating, it does seem quite unreasonable to expect people to fork out £30 and then have their view restricted.

For me, the production only really comes to life at certain moments, mostly when the whole company is working together. There's some great comedy movement during the airshow and vocally, their combined talents work well, especially when some interesting harmonies creep in. It was particularly gratifying to hear There's No Business Like Showbusiness sung in its rightful home, and Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better had enough humour to carry it through without seeming too clichéd. I just wish there was some room on the stage for some fun choreography.

As the titular Annie, Jane Horrocks is largely good, but sometimes it felt like she was a little uneasy, not quite comfortable yet in the role. Part of this could be addressed once the show opens I guess and she settles more, but I have to admit to being disappointed by her vocal performance. It felt
like some of her songs were in the wrong key for her, and so her voice lacked strength and often just didn't deliver the requisite fireworks. It wasn't by any means bad, just not what I was expecting. Julian Ovenden fared better as her rival Frank, he has the look and sound of a young John Barrowman (for better or for worse!), very much in the matinée idol mould. And there was sterling support from John Marquez and Liza Sadovy, whose vocal strength showed Horrocks up somewhat, as the sidekicks and I loved their duet.

Once the adjustment has been made to the type of production you are witnessing, there is actually quite a lot to enjoy here. There's some nicely observed comedy, some beautiful harmonies and a great energy about the show. It's just hard to shake the feeling that you're watching an Am-Dram production which just happens to have Jane Horrocks in the lead role. Oh, and try and bag a seat in the middle of the auditorium!

Review: The Fastest Clock in the Universe, Hampstead

“Fuck the milk of human kindness. . .welcome to the abattoir”

It’s a wonder anyone still lives in East London given the treatment it gets in our cultural life, and Philip Ridley’s play The Fastest Clock in the Universe is no exception to characterising it as a place of danger, despair and delusion. The play was very well received on its 1992 debut, where it starred a little known actor called Jude Law…, and Ridley’s writing is very much his own unique style, combining a raw sense of the ugliness of the world with a fantastical, almost child-like playfulness that makes for a disarming combination. This was also a first trip (I think) to the Hampstead Theatre for me, incidentally also the venue where the show premiered.

Here, the 30 year old Cougar Glass is preparing for his birthday party with older flatmate Captain Tock in the same way he’s done for years – everyone pretends it is his 19th birthday, Tock provides cards and presents from imaginary friends and Cougar procures his own favourite gift in the shape of a nubile teenage boy. But this year, the target he has groomed, Foxtrot Darling, has brought along his rather pregnant girlfriend, Sherbet Gravel, (one assumes these names are picked by some kind of random generator…) and so the party doesn’t anywhere near as smoothly as planned. 

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Review: The Power Of Yes

"The people who have to pay the price are never the ones who benefit"
Commissioned by the National Theatre to respond to the recent financial crisis, David Hare's latest work arrives at the Lyttleton in an attempt to try and cast some light on the global meltdown and how it was allowed to happen. The Power Of Yes is subtitled 'A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis' and is the result of a series of interviews carried out with key players from a range of institutions.

Anthony Calf plays the playwright himself in a quirky set-up as we are instantly informed that this is less of a play and more of a story-telling exercise, and guided by a Financial Times journalist played by the lovely Jemima Rooper, starts to ask the necessary questions to get down to the roots of the crisis and try to apportion culpability. The rate at which these questions are asked, and answered by a sometimes bewildering array of characters, leaves you breathless, but Hare has a knack for anchoring the flow of information to tangible markers. So when one feels in danger of getting lost in the financial jargon, we are hooked right back in with the kind of statistics that bring home the true scale of sums that were involved.

Cast of The Power of Yes continued

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Review: Judgment Day, Almeida

"The train is coming..."

Judgment Day is a play by Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth, which has been translated here at the Almeida theatre by Christoper Hampton. One of the first commissions after Michael Attenborough's arrival as Artistic Director, Hampton has long been a champion of this writer and this is the first full production of this play in this country. Von Horváth wrote much of his anti-Nazi work in Germany in the 1930s, but opted to remain in the country to study the encroaching rise of Nazism, instead of fleeing like many of his compatriots such as Bertold Brecht.

It's the story of Hudetz, a stationmaster of a small village who, distracted one evening by a popular local girl eager for a kiss, fails to make the necessary signal to a passing train causing a devastating fatal crash. The girl Anna then perjures herself to defend Hudetz as he seeks to escape justice, despite his unhappy wife also witnessing the events. We then see the effects of overwhelming grief on this pair as they struggle to carry on with their lives, exacerbated by the ever-changing moods of the townspeople, whose vicious, bigoted anger seems to be refocused with every new piece of gossip that comes their way.

As ever at the Almeida, the acting is uniformly superb. Joseph Millson's stationmaster perfectly captures the essence of this broken man whose decisions lead him further and further into tragic denial, all-the-while clinging to his duty as a mantra of self-protection. Laura Donnelly delivers an incredibly assured performance as the girl whose actions set the whole play in motion, blending sensuality with fragility and then descending rapidly into a neurotic self-flagellating remorse as her guilt theatens to overwhelm her. However, all of the supporting players do fine work as the beauty of von Horváth's characters is that they are all fully realised, no matter how minor, each wrestling with their own complicity in events and the decisions they have to make. And the use of supernumaries in several scenes gave a real authenticity to the feelings of 'mob justice' as the prevailing antagonisms of the small community shifted from character to character throughout the play.

Every element of this production is elegantly judged (pardon the pun). The staging is quite ingenious: seemingly based on a train turntable, the set twists and turns to present the action from different sides and perspectives and has great flexibility in representing the different locations, all the while evoking the all-important railway. Be warned though, anyone with a cough should probably avoid the first few rows as there is much effective use of dry ice as the trains pass through the station. The lighting was also particularly evocative, I loved the device of spotlighting one character at the end of each scene which served the dual purpose of distracting from the scene changes but also providing deeper moments probing into the psyches of these people.

Given the socio-political sphere in which Horváth wrote, it is easy just to see this play as a damning indictment of the German small-town mentality that allowed National Socialism to seize the country, but by not making explicit reference to the Nazis and reminding us that anyone and everyone can abdicate responsibility for their actions when herd mentality sets in, Judgment Day takes on a chilling universality.

Cast of Judgment Day continued

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Top five plays of September

Here's my top 5 plays for the month of September

1. Our Class
2. Hello, Dolly!
3. Enron
4. Speaking in Tongues
5. Showstopper! the improvised musical

And the top 20 of the year so far

1. Our Class
2. When The Rain Stops Falling

3. Hello, Dolly!
4. La Cage Aux Folles
5. A Streetcar Named Desire
6. Arcadia
7. A Doll's House

8. Enron
9. The Pietà
10. Duet For One
11. Hamlet
12. Sister Act
13. The Last Five Years

14. Burnt By The Sun
15. Parlour Song
16. All's Well That Ends Well
17. The Cherry Orchard
18. Speaking in Tongues

19. The Observer
20. Dancing At Lughnasa