Sunday, 27 February 2011

DVD Review: Les Misérables in concert contd

"Every man must choose his way"

The encore of the 25th Anniversary concert of Les Misérables saw a series of nice nods to the show’s enduring history and those who were responsible for its creation. Bringing onstage the vast majority of the original cast from the Barbican increased the number of people on the stage to ridiculous levels, but allowed for two great musical moments. First a four-way version of Bring Him Home, joining together Valjeans past – Colm Wilkinson – and present – Alfie Boe, Simon Bowman (from the Queen’s) and John Owen-Jones (from the tour) which was sung beautifully, with solos blending into each other and lines of paired harmony. Giving Boe a key-change just confirmed the conspiracy theories in my head but it was nice to see that Wilkinson was given the final, goose-bump-inducing note.

And then One Day More as sung by the original cast was lots of fun. Seeing faces that have become familiar to me now – Rebecca Caine, Frances Ruffelle, Roger Allam, Alun Armstrong – as well as Michael Ball, in this context was really interested and got to me thinking who of the younger actors performing today will still be tirelessly working in the industry 25 years from now. It was perhaps unsurprising that Patti LuPone wasn’t there to reprise her Fantine (though I may be being unfair, she could well have been working on Broadway) but I was surprised to see that the original Enjolras was missing, as David Burt has been a near constant presence on the stage this year.

DVD Review: Les Misérables in concert

"There's a reckoning to be reckoned"

Forming the culmination of the 25th Anniversary celebrations of Les Misérables was a pair of concert versions of the show taking place at the O2 centre in Greenwich which brought together the company of companies, over 500 actors and musicians joining forces to pay tribute to this enduing classic of a show. The cast and companies of the touring production and the West End production joined with a massive choir and orchestra and a hand-picked international cast performed the lead roles in this concert presentation which was also relayed live into cinemas and later released on DVD to be enjoyed by those who chose not to go (or couldn’t get tickets).

Concert versions of shows are always a bit funny, performers singing songs to each other but looking straight out at audiences and limited opportunity for acting so they can often feel a little constrained in their presentation. Here, the cast were in full costume and projections and clips from the show used to fill in some of the gaps that the songs could not fill. And it is all really rather good if not quite the self-proclaimed “musical event of a lifetime”.

Cast of Les Mis continued

Cast of Les Mis continued

Cast of Les Mis continued

Review: Drowning on Dry Land, Jermyn Street

“He’s not a novelist, painter or artist...he’s a personality”

Drowning on Dry Land is the third Alan Ayckbourn currently playing in London (Season’s Greetings and Snake in the Grass being the other two) just opening at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Written in 2004, it is a look at the curious nature of Z-list celebrity, of people who are famous just for being famous, following professional celebrity Charlie Conrad, universally adored as a grand underachiever, whose security is revealed to be paper-thin as his wife is terminally unsatisfied, his jaded agent is looking for a way out and as it turns out, he is all too aware of the precariousness of his position. Things come to a head at the birthday party of one of his children in the grounds of their country mansion when he is caught in the most compromising of positions with one of his adoring fans who has her own agenda.

Part of the problem that I had with this show was ironically acknowledged in the show itself – one of the characters even says “six years is a long time in showbusiness” – and the way in which celebrity coverage through various forms of media has saturated the market means that there’s countless ‘real-life’ dramas in our day-to-day lives, should we wish to engage with them. Ayckbourn’s subject matter for this play has been overtaken by reality and resultantly presents little that is acutely observed or revelatory to us here, especially as we are all complicit in the understanding that so much of what is considered ‘celebrity’ these days is purely vacuous and talent-free.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Review: Blue Fence, Pleasance

“How can we help?”

Blue Fence is a play by Heather O’Shea about an artist whose life is drastically affected when she suffers a stroke. Having been commissioned to create a piece of sculpture for the 2012 Olympics, she is forced to reassess her position as her condition renders her a ‘disabled artist’ in the eyes of the authorities, though this isn’t a change she has accepted or identified in herself. Thus we see how she has to change how she relates to others, and to her art, and how they deal with someone newly ‘disabled’ in their lives.

As Claire, Flora Nicholson has clearly put huge effort into creating an authentic physical performance as a woman recovering from a stroke and the painstaking way in which her recovery slowly progresses is expertly portrayed, all credit to Movement Advisor Imogen Knight there. But it is not just about the movement, she shows a woman who is determined from the outset and when forced to channel that frustration into her recovery and dealing with the way the world sees her now, she shows the sacrifices and the single-mindedness that become necessary, but also the painful effect that it can have on personal relationships with family, friends and loved ones as all become accustomed to this new reality.

Review: Drive Ride Walk, Greenwich Theatre

“I can’t believe I’m falling again”

Drive Ride Walk is a piece of new musical theatre from Filament Theatre by Osnat Schmool, developed from a two-song 10-minute sketch into this hour-long show which combines 9-person acapella singing with physical theatre about commuting in London. It follows three different journeys through the capital: a cyclist winding her way through the traffic who has a chance encounter with a handsome pedestrian, a newly-qualified driver taking friends for a drive and a group of commuters who have to deal with an unexpected change to their daily routine.

It is very loosely structured and freeform in its nature, both in terms of its story-telling and the music itself and so to be honest, it proved to be quite a trying experience in all. Schmool’s score is rather flat, accompanied occasionally by cello and accordion but mainly eschewing songs for densely-packed vocal lines and murkily repeated phrases which resembled nothing so much as vocal doodling rather than bursting with musicality. My reaction to it reminded me of how I felt about John Adams’ I Was Looking At The Ceiling... in that whatever it is about certain kinds of music that appeals to some just flies right over my head. I just couldn't see what they were trying to achieve here and though it was only an hour, it felt much longer.

(Not a) Review: Contact U.K., Soho Theatre

“We need have some boundaries...”

This isn’t a review of this show, Contact U.K., as it was a table reading of this new play by Michael Kingsbury which took place at the Studio on the top floor of the Soho Theatre, but more of a note for myself for completeness to my record of theatre-going and also, hopefully, the smugness I can have when/if this show makes it to the stage: I can say that I filled out a rather amusing feedback form and helped shape its progress!

I can’t deny that the cast involved played a big part in me wanting to attend to: Tara Fitzgerald is just wonderful full stop, Michelle Ryan is proving herself to be quite the versatile actress and Rupert Graves has a special place in my period-drama loving heart (hello Maurice!). Iain McKee made up the fourth cast member, recognisable to those of you who’ve seen Channel 4’s The Promise and we even got some bonus John Sessions as the narrator which was a pleasant surprise.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Review: Gilbert & Sullivan – All At Sixes And Sevens, King’s Head Theatre

“A man is most successful when he knows the extent of his limitations”

Gilbert & Sullivan: All At Sixes And Sevens is a new play taking the late slot at London’s Little Opera House, aka the King’s Head. It is a rather odd set-up in which W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan meet up in Heaven, in the modern day, still estranged, to reflect on their often tempestuous creative partnership. This they do by recounting old stories and anecdotes, illustrated by snippets from a large range of songs from their repertoire, including Iolanthe, HMS Pinafore, The Gondoliers, The Yeomen of the Guard, The Mikado, Princessa Ida, Utopia Limited, Ruddigore, and The Grand Duke.

Rather surprisingly, it worked extremely well as a charming form of both tribute and biography, looking back at how they worked as a team, the things that drew them together, the conflicts that pulled them apart and the suggestions of how they actually felt about each other. And the way in which the music was integrated, random lines, verses or even more of songs which illustrated the point they were making was often beautifully done. It was perhaps less successful when it strayed into the more surreal comedy around being in Heaven and getting a little self-referential, it wasn’t quite as clever as it thought it was and to be honest, it didn’t need to stray down this path.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Review: A Bold Stroke for a Husband, Bridewell

“A man did a foolish thing once and will hear of it all his life”

The Bridewell Theatre has been running its Lunchbox Theatre slot for a while now, 45 minute long shows at 1pm and people being able to take their lunch in with them whilst enjoying a bit of theatre, but I hadn’t really been tempted as it is not conveniently located for my office and the idea of people eating during a show brings me out in hives. But, a fortuitous combination of a mid-morning meeting nearby and an intriguing play by a forgotten Georgian woman playwright meant that I went along to see A Bold Stroke for a Husband (I cheated a bit, eating noodle soup before I went in, but I took a chunky KitKat in with me though!)

The play is by Hannah Cowley, a contemporary of Sheridan but someone whose works have largely fallen out of favour, and this claims to be the first staging in 200 years of this particular work. In a nutshell, Don Carlos who, having abandoned his charming wife Donna Victoria, has signed away his estate in the throes of passion to the seductive Donna Laura, and so Donna Victoria is forced, with the help of her friend Donna Olivia, to dress up as a boy, Florio, to try and win the heart of Donna Laura and somehow reclaim her fortune. In the midst of all this Donna Olivia’s father, Don Caesar, wants to marry off his daughter to sort out his legacy, but she wants to get it on with Don Julio, whom she’s admired from afar but he’s a bit of a confirmed bachelor.

Review: Racing Demon, Crucible

"What would be the proper Christian thing to do?"

Having hardly any willpower at all is not a good thing for a theatre addict trying to cut down and having decided that I would forego the David Hare season in Sheffield, all it took was one pint after Snake in the Grass and a casually whispered suggestion to sneak a day off work and off we popped to the Crucible to see Racing Demon. It is a play focused on the redoubtable institution of the Church of England and the battles it faces in remaining relevant to a modern society and what effective help can they provide in times of tangible hardship. It also whips through the pressures of the ordination of women and the acceptance of gays in the Church through looking at a team of ministers in a South London parish.

Daniel Evans has assembled a truly top-notch cast here, fully fleshing out the expertly characterised clergymen whether it was Jamie Parker’s evangelical but passionate young curate who stirs things up from the moment of his arrival, Matthew Cottle’s kindly Streaky who plods on with an appealing honesty or Ian Gelder’s superb Harry, being hounded out of the closet by a rapacious tabloid journalist. But even the bishops, perceived as the ‘enemy’ here, played by Jonathan Coy and Mark Tandy are powerfully persuasive as we come to understand the larger pressures they feel in a Church under threat from all angles. But it is Malcolm Sinclair’s central Lionel whose dilemma dominates proceedings and he is never less than utterly convincing as a man who is determined to do great good even whilst his faith wavers.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Review: Great Expectations, ETT at Watford Palace

“I want to be a gentleman"

English Touring Theatre’s production of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations relocates the story of Pip’s advancement to nineteenth century India in this thrilling adaptation by Tanika Gupta. A poor village boy, Pip is given the chance to better himself after a frightening encounter with a convict and an engagement to regularly visit the reclusive Miss Havisham sets him on a new path that allows him to dream of being more than a village cobbler’s assistant. And when an anonymous benefactor allows him to move to Calcutta, the heart of the British Raj, he is free to pursue his dream of becoming a proper gentleman, part of the educated elite, in order to win the heart of the coldly alluring Estella.

Gupta’s reimagining works extremely well because Pip’s journey, with his aspirations to rise above his class and status, is given even greater impact by the fact that he is casting aside his cultural identity too, his Indianness, in the search to become the perfect educated gentleman, just like one of the ruling English. This makes the transformation he seeks to effect upon himself all the more dramatic, as depicted in a wonderful scene where he dons the waistcoat and cravat of his new station, and then provides a powerfully meaningful final transition in the last scene as he ultimately comes to recognise what his true self is. But also mixed in is another layer of racial tension: Magwitch becomes a black African convict, Estella is Miss Havisham’s “African princess” and so Gupta keeps the interplay much more universal than a simplistic Asian updating and she is unafraid to show both the comedy and violence in the story in its starkest forms.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Review: The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Donmar Warehouse

“Can I get a definition please?”

A musical comedy at the Donmar? From the moment you enter the auditorium and see how Christopher Oram’s design has been translated down to the tiniest of details to create a school gymnasium, it is clear we’re in for something different and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a self-confessed scratching of an itch to do something fun for director Jamie Lloyd, is just that. Based around the tradition of spelling competitions at US high schools, it follows a group of six kids aiming to win this contest and qualify for the place at the national final. It also takes the step of inviting audience participation, four people were selected to take part and so the first third of the show is taken up with the early rounds of the competition and the increasingly amusing ways in which they made sure that timely exits were secured from the newcomers.

Originally conceived by Rachel Feldman and with music and lyrics from William Finn (I’ve never seen any of his shows, but a song from Falsettoland, 'What More Can I Say', is fast becoming a cabaret staple - Simon Burke, Reed Sinclair and London Gay Men's Chorus just last year - and is utterly gorgeous) and book by Rachel Sheinkin, the show takes the form of a spelling competition but as each child takes their turn to spell, a flashback gives us the opportunity to learn more about these characters, their youthful angsts and ambitions as they struggle to decide who they really are in a world that doesn’t consider them normal. This was a preview performance from Tuesday 15th February, watched in the midst of a large group, not all of whom I sadly got the chance to talk to.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Review: Snake in the Grass, Print Room

“We can’t live in a caravan”

Snake in the Grass is the London premiere of this Alan Ayckbourn play which is a rarity in itself as it marks one of his forays away from his more usual comedy. It is described by Ayckbourn himself as 'a ghost play', but it is more obviously a psychological thriller, threaded through with recognisable hints of class struggles and flashes of mordant humour. Directed by Lucy Bailey, who with Anda Winters have converted this Notting Hill warehouse into one of London’s newest new fringe venues, The Print Room.

Set in the grounds of a large country house, the play follows two sisters who are reunited after 20 years following the death of their authoritarian father. Annabel escaped her father’s clutches to Tasmania only to find new devils there, whilst Miriam stayed to care for their father but was driven to extreme measures. Finding themselves back together and then visited by a vindictive former nurse of their father’s who was dismissed, they find themselves having to deal both with the haunting ghosts of the past and the psychological threats of the present.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

DVD Review: Macbeth

This filmed version of Macbeth follows on from the well-received Hamlet, starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, that was also captured for posterity but given the filmic treatment rather than just recorded on stage. The entire adult cast, including Stewart and Kate Fleetwood as the murderous couple, from the original Chichester production reunited to film this in high definition in the gloomy tunnels and bunker-like rooms at Walbeck Abbey.

Director Rupert Goold relocates the action to the Cold War Era thus making war-torn Scotland something closer to Stalinist Russia:, the hallmarks of fascism are ever-present with giant posters of the ruler dominating rooms, a police state mentality prevailing with torture used to maintain fear and control over the people as the Macbeths seek to sate their bloodlust and desire for the crown through any means necessary.

Review: The Biting Point, Theatre503

"The march is coming..."

Ruth is refusing to come to terms with the recent past and the reality of her life now; Dennis finds himself trapped in a sordid mess very much of his own making; Malcolm is struggling to balance caring for his sister with trying to live his own life. The stories of these three people and how the personal affects and defines the political, often to extreme levels as a race riot approaches, make up The Biting Point, a new play by Sharon Clark playing at Theatre503 in Battersea, directed by Dan Coleman.

Review: Our Private Life, Royal Court

“Are you thinking or speaking? Is he thinking or speaking? Am I thinking or speaking?”

Our Private Life, a family parable in three acts and an epilogue by Colombian playwright Pedro Miguel Rozo, is the first play in the Royal Court’s International Playwrights Season – 2 full productions, one each from Latin America and Eastern Europe accompanied by seminars and readings of other works from around the region. Developed in part at their International Residency, Our Private Life or Nuestras Vidas Privadas has been produced in Colombia but appears here in a translation by Simon Scardifield. 

Set in an unspecified but rapidly urbanising location in Colombia – a town with the soul of a village or a village with the body of a town – it looks at a family whose veneer of respectability and good standing is severely compromised when a damaging rumour starts to circulate about the father and the young son of one of their former tenants. The shockwaves reverberate internally too though as long-buried secrets edge closer to the surface as the two sons, bipolar-compulsive-fantasist gay Carlos and hyper-masculine, budding businessman Sergio, try to figure out the truth about their childhood amidst all the flying accusations. 

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Review: Curtains, Arts Ed

“Critics! Who’d make a living out of killing other people’s dreams?”

I could have been on the stage. Indeed I was, briefly as a shy teenager, but playing the piano for shows was a much more appealing option for me and so the world was left sadly bereft of what could have been the definitive Hamlet for our generation. Fortunately though, we are not lacking in acting talent and it is being well-nurtured at drama schools like Arts Ed where I went to catch this undergraduate production of Kander & Ebb’s Curtains. I was particularly keen to see it as the choreography was done by Andrew Wright, the gentleman who did the deed for my favourite musical of last year, Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi and I thought I might be able to convince him to give me a tap dancing lesson in the interval.

Anyway, the show Curtains had a bit of a sad genesis. The original concept came from Peter Stone but he died before he completed the book so Rupert Holmes was brought in to rewrite it but when Fred Ebb also passed away before it had been finished, Holmes and Kander had to step in to finish off the lyrics. But it is not a melancholy show, far from it. It is a ‘musical comedy whodunit’, a send-up of murder mysteries set backstage at a theatre where a spectacularly bad leading lady is murdered after her first night in a Western version of Robin Hood. It is then up to a musical-theatre-loving detective to catch the murderer, save the show and fall in love with the girl of his dreams before the new opening night keeping the entire cast and crew and a rogue critic with far too much time on his hands, under suspicion.

Review: The Blue Room, Guildhall at the Bridewell Theatre

“Have you ever been in love...?”

I would have loved to have gone up to Sheffield to catch one or more of the plays in the David Hare season currently playing, there’s some really interesting casting and I haven’t experienced much of Hare’s work at all, but two trips there last month and a tight schedule this month means it doesn’t look likely, so I had to look closer to home. And almost as if it was meant to be, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama obliged with a production of The Blue Room at the Bridewell. A free adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde (which seems an endlessly popular play for reinterpretations), this show is perhaps most (in)famous for the Donmar Warehouse’s production in which Iain Glen and Nicole Kidman covered all the roles and set certain critics’ flames alight.

The show features a daisy-chain of 10 anonymous characters in endless sexual encounters, one having sex with another until the final character meets the first and the circle is completed. Hare kept this structure in his version but moved to the action from fin-de-siècle Vienna to “one of the great cities of the world, in the present day” and had 2 actors play all the parts, demanding great versatility in portraying the multiple takes on lust, sex, class, power. This version though has a different person playing each part.

Performed in this way allows for a nice showcasing opportunity for the set of 10 actors but it also highlighted the slightness to the play in its collection of short scenes of varying quality and dialogue that seems to oscillate between the modernity of Hare and Schnitzler’s turn-of-the-century attitudes in a rather random manner which didn’t always sit so well. There’s a nice recurring theme of how people can modify their behaviour when they are with different people and how sex can used to gain all manners of things but ultimately the play felt somewhat superficial.

But given the constraints of Hare’s adaptation, a fine job was achieved by cast and crew. I particularly enjoyed Cai Brigden’s arrogant rich student turned starry-eyed romantic by his married lover, Kat Seelos as said richly-voiced lover, warmly amused by the puppyish attentions of her lover and coldly amused by the attitudes to women of her traditionalist politician husband and Rachael Deering’s actress, playful in her relationships with both playwrights and fans.

Tom Daley’s direction did well to make each of the scenes throb with some kind of emotional intensity in the build-up to the sex, well portrayed in darkened slow motion, and in the post-coital. He also did well to keep the many transitions smoothly effective to the tune of Mikko Gordon’s pulsing modern soundtrack, mixing and remixing well-known tunes, covering the realignment of designer Signe Beckmann’s Perspex boxes into endlessly flexible permutations. And I loved the effect of the tumbling fluorescent tubes in one corner, fading from colour to colour, it was almost pretty enough to watch on its own and credit should go to lighting designer Robert Dyer, still a student at Guildhall but demonstrating a talent to watch out for.

Running time: 90 minutes
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 17th February
Note: smoking and scenes of an adult nature

Review: Penelope, Hampstead Theatre

“How dare you bring the world into this”

Enda Walsh’s Penelope is a modern reimagining and refocusing of Homer’s Odyssey, taking as its main subject the wife of Odysseus who, whilst waiting for her husband to return, was entertained by over 100 suitors whom she kept at bay for over 20 years. Walsh picks up the story on the day before Odysseus returns, with the last four remaining men kept in a disused swimming pool next to Penelope’s palatial home, desperate for one last chance to win her hand. 

Densely poetic, the language is chillingly beautiful at times, none more so than with Niall Buggy’s hoarsely intonated speech about the ‘real’ world. Each actor though is given the opportunity to shine as they each plead for Penelope’s hand, all too aware of the fast-approaching consequences of Odysseus’ return and unable to hide the desperation they all feel. Walsh depicts the senselessness of pursuing competition recklessly to the end, taking aim at perceived notions of masculinity and by extension, the state of Ireland today. 

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Review: The Heretic, Royal Court

“I’m trying to teach the importance of scepticism”

The Heretic, Richard Bean’s new play for the Royal Court, deals with the topic du jour taxing our playwrights, climate change, but takes a sharply comic take which provides a highly amusing evening and neatly sidesteps the gloominess which often permeates issue-driven theatre. Palaeogeophysics and geodynamics lecturer at York University, Dr Diane Cassell is treading a lonely path as a climate change sceptic, her findings are not convincing her that sea levels are indeed rising, which puts her in direct confrontation with her Greenpeace activist daughter and her department, as she publishes research and goes on (a highly amusingly filmed segment) Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman without permission, going against the wishes of her sponsor-hungry boss who just happens to be an old flame. One ray of sunshine for her is new student Ben who is receptive to her way of thinking and becomes her protégé whilst her world begins to crumble around her and death threats start to come in.

By focusing on fully-fleshed characters rather than the issue per se, The Heretic for an engaging evening which is particularly thought-provoking in the first half as Bean questions the way in which science and politics are often forced together despite being uneasy bedfellows and looks at so many of the factors which surround the climate change debate that interact in a multiplicity of conflicting ways – this is more fun than it sounds I promise. I did like the way too the way in which humour is brought into every scene, the environmentally conscious security guard switching the light off, the way in which Bean skewers the bureaucracy around universities and HR departments everywhere and there are some seriously cracking one-liners peppered liberally throughout the show. 

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Review: Bender / Laundry, Wet Rep Season - Waterloo East

“I got bored of sobriety”

The Wet Rep Season at the Waterloo East theatre, tucked under a railway arch near Waterloo station, features 4 plays by 3 writers being performed by 1 company. The shows are delivered in varied double bills so you can really pick which ones you want to see, or even go for the whole set and soak up a whole lot of new writing.

Inspired by a Facebook page that asked its members to share their own stories and anecdotes about their nights to remember, Bender tells the story of a night out for three young people whose idea of a good night out is to get totally wasted on drink and drugs and hurl themselves into oblivion. It is a high-octane ride through getting ready to go out, pubs, clubs, post-club adventures and then the comedown which never really relents from the moment its 70 minutes start. Writer Anna Jordan has constructed a highly amusing trail through the empties and the things that happen that we’d rather forget about, which never feels less than authentic (how could it not, given the source material) and it only really falls down with a late twist into melodrama which isn’t really needed.

Friday, 11 February 2011

A response to Matt Trueman

I was wary of posting this response to Matt Trueman’s theatre blog "Theatre bloggers must leave previews alone", a draft sat on my laptop for a good few hours yesterday as I tried to make sense of the wilfully provocative rhetoric and the sentiments that lay behind its writing. Ostensibly a defence of the preview period as part of the creative process, it soon moves onto yet another attack on bloggers and their conduct. I could have refined it, clarified some of the points I struggle to make, but it came out of me fairly stream-of-consciousness-like yesterday lunchtime and so whilst I’ve separated it into two main strands, this is me speaking pretty much unedited from the gut.

There is a debate to be had about the ethical responsibilities around preview performances, but Trueman does not pursue this fully despite it being the set-up for the article. In focusing so hard on and damning the bloggers, an amorphous community who act as one for the benefit of this argument apparently, whilst simultaneously skating over those same responsibilities also held by the producers, the theatres, the PR companies, the actors even, the argument is fatally undermined. The actions of all the key players need to be interrogated and challenged in order for this issue to be truly understood and dealt with in a manner that can then be addressed.

Review: Ordinary Days, Trafalgar Studios 2

“We’ve only just met, but you need to get some perspective on the big picture”

Ordinary Days is a musical which played at the Finborough back in 2008 but has been slightly revised and revamped during runs in the USA and returns to London to Trafalgar Studios 2. Completely sung-through, Adam Gwon wrote the music and lyrics to all 18 songs which play out over a nifty 80 minutes and this production features two members of that original London cast, including the rather special Julie Atherton.

It is set in contemporary New York looking at the mundane lives of four young adults and how the problems in their lives forces them to seek and/or reassess the connections they make to get through life. As with so many modern American musicals, the immediate reference point seems to be Jason Robert Brown but I have to say there were moments when the music actually reminded me more of Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s work in Avenue Q which was nice.

Review: Side Effects, dANTE OR dIE at Rich Mix

“Temazepam. 10mg. Insomnia. Number 505.”

Side Effects, a piece of dance-theatre by dANTE OR dIE at Rich Mix in Bethnal Green, was inspired by a British Museum exhibition which reckoned that the average British person will take around 14,000 pills in their lifetime. Devised and performed by a team of five, under Daphna Attias’ direction, it delves into personal history to reveal the social context behind the increased part that medicine now plays in our lives as well as its more expected curative role.

The beauty of this concept and the way it is executed by a company with ages ranging from 20 to 75, is that almost everyone can relate to it somehow and as so many of the people involved in the production have medical backgrounds, it is rooted in a strong understanding of the issues. For me it was the treats after trips to the hospital that resonated most, I am remember always having a special meal waiting for me each time after a series of operations as a boy and so therefore it was Terry O’Donovan’s performance of his ‘list’ of ailments and maladies leavened with his enlightening stories that moved me the most.

Review: Miss Nightingale – the musical, King’s Head

“Maybe we should be less Berlin, we need to be more English”

Currently playing in the late night slot at the King’s Head Theatre is new musical Miss Nightingale. It is the baby of Matthew Bugg who wrote the music and lyrics as well as the book and also serves as director here. Set in wartime London 1942, it weaves together the stories of three people, a nurse who longs to become a cabaret star, her Polish-Jewish songwriter and the owner of the club who could make everything happen. But whilst the show has fun charting the sensational rise to fame of the titular Miss Nightingale, it also looks at the experience of homosexual men during wartime, at a time when the relative permissiveness of the 20s and 30s gave way to a dangerous paranoia as songwriter George starts a furtively hidden affair with the aristocratic club owner Sir Frank Connor.

The two strands are woven together throughout in a way which sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. Bugg has had a great time composing a set of songs for Miss Nightingale which could have come straight out of Cabaret or Chicago and they are delivered with a nice saucy twinkle by Amber Topaz who rises above the limited scope offered by the set most effectively. The more ‘regular’ songs are less memorable it has to be said, though he has also constructed a nice set of trio songs where all three voices are allowed to intertwine and harmonise in an engaging way.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Review: Company, Southwark Playhouse

“Everything's different, nothing's changed, only maybe slightly rearranged”

Marking the first ever musical to play at the Southwark Playhouse, Stephen Sondheim’s Company is one of the few shows that didn’t receive an airing in London last year (aside from the Donmar concert version) but receives a fringe production here from Mokitagrit, who are riding high on the recent success of Double Falsehood which is now transferring to the New Players Theatre for a brief extended run. It contains some of Sondheim’s greatest songs, but with its tricksy structure and book by George Furth, I have found it a difficult show to love.

The story centres on eternal singleton Bobby who is just about to turn 35. He is juggling three girlfriends and the 5 sets of married couples that make up his best friends are keen for him to settle down, but as the show progresses through a series of vignettes that look at each couple in turn, we see that each couple has their own story, their own take on marriage and their exhortations for Bobby to give up his bachelorhood masks issues in their own lives. 

Cast of Company continued

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Review: Frankenstein, National Theatre

“Please do not be inconsistent, I find it infuriating”

Perhaps the first big theatre ‘event’ of the year is the National Theatre’s Frankenstein which has taken the step of cross-casting its two main parts, so on different nights one can see Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller playing the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. The play is a new work by Nick Dear although based on Mary Shelley’s famous novel and features the National Theatre directorial debut of Danny Boyle, Oscar-winning director of films like Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. The programme of who is playing whom has now been published, although the run is currently sold out, but the previews remained unallocated so it was a lucky dip as to who we would get when we went to see it: just to clarify, this is a review of a preview performance from Tuesday 8th February which I have kept in mind whilst blogging about this show.

There’s a highly atmospheric entrance into the Olivier, with a bell tolling and a strange looking pod revolving slowly around the stage. As the lights darkened to a womb-like red, a figure began to emerge from this pod and eventually a completely naked Benedict Cumberbatch broke free to be birthed into this cruel chamber. It is hard to see how this opening 15 or so minutes will be bettered this year, as a physical performance it is truly outstanding as he slowly becomes accustomed to the world through squinting eyes, stuttering sounds and a stumbling gait, controlled through a stunning light feature that hangs above the stage, protruding into the audience that flashes blindingly, radiating an intense heat too, as a highly effective warning device. It is a remarkably open sequence too, not just because he is in the nude, but because he is so free in his movements and the way in which he shows the fast-burgeoning intelligence of the Creature, in his reaction to his first dawn or the rain for instance: he really sets the marker for the rest of the play in creating this empathetic character who one can’t help but root for (the odd murder excepted of course).

Such an effective and expressionistic opening would be a hard act to follow at the best of times, but the (metaphorical, as opposed to the literal) warning bells sounded straightaway with the arrival of a bizarre steam-punk-inspired train complete with random singing, the dreaded ‘movement’ and sparks flying everywhere which thankfully disappears as abruptly as it arrives. The introduction of other characters into the narrative is not particularly successfully done here at any point, partly due to the compressed timescale: we rip through months and years in the blink of an eye but it is never quite clear enough. More crucially though, the fast pace means that we have no time to get to know any of the subsidiary characters, whether it is the de Laceys from whom the Creature learns so much, even the tragic young William Frankenstein and the rest of his household, a lot has been sacrificed for the expediency of interval-free pace.

Cast of Frankenstein continued

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Review: Water, Filter at Tricycle Theatre

“Water is a sociable molecule, it loves to mingle”

First seen at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2007, Filter and David Farr’s collaborative effort Water has been revived and is playing for a month at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. Water pulls together two main stories, the first featuring a pair of half-brothers struggling to deal with the legacy of their deceased father, an early proponent of climate change theory, and their different perceptions of him before and after he accepted corporate money to silence his views, and the second about a young political adviser trying to push through a binding climate change agreement at a major international summit in the face of her own splintering relationship with her deep cave diving boyfriend. And the show really is about these human dramas rather than environmental issues per se, the connection to water that they all have is incidental rather than integral.

Using their trademark style of laying much of the theatrical process bare, the three actors, sound technician and stage team ‘create’ in front of us and with this deceptively simple approach, moments of stark beauty are achieved: the silhouetted squash game and the striking, wordless penultimate scene being two particular standouts. The way in the soundscape is created by everyone in the most varied of manners and then further developed by Tim Phillips is brilliantly executed, finding connections in the most disparate of things.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Review: and the little one said..., Cock Tavern

“I don’t know what makes me more sad- that you went, or that you didn’t come back earlier.”

Marking my first visit to Kilburn’s Cock Tavern Theatre was a trip to see a new play and the little one said... by Laura Stevens. Centred on the story of Ben, who was kidnapped as a 10 year old boy and has finally been reunited with what remains of his family after 8 years, the play looks at his difficult transition back into the real world, away from his abductor, a situation made much worse by a hungry media who won’t leave this potentially huge (as they see it) story alone.

Stevens managed the slow reveal of information about Ben’s predicament extremely well, drawing the audience into the awful truth about what happened and the utterly devastating effects of terrible grief on a family. And in being economical which exactly what she divulges to us, the power of the play is amplified as our minds race to imagine what could have inspired the anguish we see on the faces of the people he tells. She is ably served by an excellent performance from Chris O’Shea as the traumatised Ben. Suffering from something akin to Stockholm Syndrome with his ongoing concern for his captor, O’Shea portrayed the emotionally stunted teenager with an affecting directness, painful at times with his warped ideas of love and sex, his inability to socialise and the slow journey to acceptance of what has happened to him.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Review: Accolade, Finborough

“But what have they knighted you for?”

Accolade, a 1950 play by Emlyn Williams, is receiving its first ever revival here at the Finborough as part of their RediscoveriesUK season. Considered a controversial play at the time due to its unashamedly frank approach to sexuality, it will hardly seem risqué to modern audiences but as it is a rather tightly-constructed drama filled with suspense and given an excellent production here with Blanche McIntyre directing, one can’t help but wonder how on earth it has taken so long to get this back on the stage!

Set in London in 1950, Will Trenting is a novelist who has received notification that he is to be knighted and fully embraced into respectable society. But his scandalous novels have been born out of the double life that he has been leading and the attention that comes with this accolade being awarded to him exposes his predilection for drunken orgies in the East End with partners of all ages. Just before his date with Buckingham Palace though, a shocking charge is made and the fallout threatens his carefully balanced mix of family life and wilful hedonism.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Wie tegenwoordig voor mooie dingen geeft?”

Featuring the return of Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Barbican, Antonioni Project is another multimedia extravaganza from the Dutch theatre company who blew many, including me, away with their six-hour Shakespeare epic, The Roman Tragedies. Under Ivo van Hove’s direction, they have built up a sterling reputation as one of the leading European companies with their innovative blending of film-making techniques into more traditional theatre and creating a whole new theatrical experience for the audience.

This work pulls together three of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, with their common themes of couples struggling to reconcile notions of love with the reality of sex in a changing world that they feel estranged from due to their extreme materialism. The narratives of the three films are mixed, with characters from each interacting, I’d recommend reading the programme beforehand whether you know the films or not just to give you a bit of context that will prove invaluable.

Cast of Antonioni Project continued

Re-review: Salad Days, Riverside Studios

“It’s true I’ve been led an amazing dance,
but why should I ever complain?
If I could be given a second chance,
I’d live it all over again”

One of the greatest pleasures of writing this blog has been being able to really champion the shows that really move me, the ones that I heartily recommend to everyone in my phonebook the moment I come out of the theatre and so it was in early December with this delightful musical. The ‘little show that could’, Salad Days has risen from fairly quiet beginnings to becoming one of the hottest tickets in town and their last few weeks have been playing to packed houses. Whether it was the snowy weather in December, or the length of time it took to persuade critics to visit Hammersmith I don’t know, but the press reviews took a long time to emerge and trickled out slowly from late December onwards. What impact this had I don’t know, but this has been, from my point of view, a genuinely huge word-of-mouth success which I think is testament to just how good a show it is.

It really is so very well put-together in all aspects: the book is genuinely funny which helps of course and delivered so cleanly and earnestly by all concerned, the songs are catchy and tuneful and the structure of the show with its plentiful brief reprises lends an air of familiarity with the music even on first listen, the costumes feel authentic and the design pitched just right. And as commented before, Tête-à-Tête's casting has been spot-on in gathering an ensemble capable of singing beautifully, un-miked into the large auditorium whilst executing Quinny Sacks’ inspired choreography. Every single aspect of this production from the entrance to the breakfast eating sequence, the people walking through the park, the club scenes and Mark Inscoe’s interval patter, feels carefully thought through and perfectly judged.

Cast of Salad Days continued

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Review: Vernon God Little, Young Vic

“This is the first time we’ve had a high school massacre in Monteiro”

The first of what will now be three revivals of their own productions in 2011, Vernon God Little returns to the Young Vic having launched Colin Morgan (more familiar as BBC1’s Merlin these days) in his debut role whilst still at drama school. This time, it is Joseph Drake who takes on the title role, fresh out of the Bristol Old Vic theatre school. This is a review of the preview performance on Tuesday 1st February.

Vernon God Little is an adaptation by Tanya Ronder of DBC Pierre’s Booker Prize-winning novel, telling the story of Vernon Gregory Little, a fifteen year old boy trapped deep in small-town Texas. When his best friend snaps and carries out a school shooting leaving sixteen dead, the rapacious television media coverage encourages the public in the search for someone to blame and their gaze lands on Vernon. Things then worse for him as opportunistic people seize their own chances for a glory at his expense and then they get a whole lot worse.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Top 10 plays for January

So, my New Year's resolution was to cut down on the number of plays I see this year, although with a total of 27 for the month of January it would appear that I failed miserably. But, many of these were booked in advance so that is my excuse and I may well yet start to see less...

Anyhoo, here's my top 10 plays for January
  1. The Comedy of Errors (Propeller)
  2. Du Goudron et des Plumes
  3. Me and My Girl
  4. Lance Horne: First Things Last
  5. Becky Shaw
  6. Clybourne Park
  7. Matilda - A Musical
  8. Less Than Kind
  9. Love Story
  10. Bea

Re-Review: Clybourne Park, Wyndham's

“That’s not the joke I was thinking of…”

Maintaining an excellent record of transfers for the Royal Court, Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park is the latest play to make the leap from Sloane Square to the West End, in this case the Wyndham’s Theatre. Robert Innes Hopkins’ design seems to have transferred almost exactly as it was at the Royal Court, seemingly at the same size and still undergoing such a great transformation in the interval. All but two of the original cast have transferred with the show, directed by Dominic Cooke, which has already won Best Show plaudits from the Evening Standard, South Bank Sky Arts and the Critics Circle and looks set to continue that success.

I saw the show early in its run at the Royal Court and though not originally intending to revisit the show, the opportunity arose and I became quite intrigued by the idea of seeing the production again in a new home. The play takes a dual look at racial prejudice in America, starting in 1959 as a white family try to sell their house in a white neighbourhood to a black family despite pressure from the locals, then switching to 2009 where the tables are turned as the demographic of the area has switched completely and it is the black community resisting the ideas of a white couple who want to buy the same house. It looks at how people rarely say exactly what they mean, especially where race is concerned and though things would seem to have improved by 2009, the events of the second half show us that that progress could be seen to be quite superficial.