Review – The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Zoonation at Royal Opera House

December 16, 2014 by

Magic at Christmas, to me, is having a company I follow worshipfully present an adaptation of a literary work I adore. No, Matthew Bourne is doing the same old same old at Sadler’s Wells (although the Royal Ballet is freshening things up by not doing the Nutcracker this year). No, ZooNation, who had me out of my seat and cheering to Some Like it Hip Hop and laughing and smiling with their Wizard of Oz have decided to tackle Alice in Wonderland. Getting two tickets together was nearly impossible, but the Royal Opera House‘s generous returns policy (and my persistent use of F5) finally paid off and a few days after opening night I was there (for a bizarrely timed 5PM Saturday start – never seen a show at that time before!).

Before I get into the dance, let me talk a little about the overall setting, which starts in the lobby of the Linbury. It’s set up like a tea party is going on, with tea pots on the tables, and there is a Mad Hatter’s picture booth where you can try on different headwear and take a photo. There are also a series of riddles written around the walls (tied into a prize giveaway). It’s all really fun and involving, although I really doubt the piece is entertaining enough for the 6 year olds I saw in the audience – 10 and over would be better. You’ve been warned.

The story, such as it is, is that strange Dr Ernest (Tommy Franzen) has been hired at a rather bizarre madhouse to lead group therapy sessions for an extremely deranged set of people. They aren’t deranged because collectively they represent the characters of Alice in Wonderland; no, they seem each to have their own quirk which needs to be dealt with. These quirk are expressed in a series of solo dances that take their greatest flight with the extremes of the Cheshire Cat (Duwane Taylor), a man who arrives in a straightjacket and, bursting it, is able to turn the external world into a flickering, blue lit chamber of extreme dub. But the highlight of these is the one duet, between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Rowen Hawkins and Ross Sands), whose high energy, Sumo-esque, belly slamming dance duel just rocked the house. I couldn’t have cared less that these two are so peripheral to the main story; watching them helicopter spin and bounce off of each other, I was leaping out of my chair with excitement – only no I wasn’t, because I was in the Linbury and most of the audience was only able to clap politely, not roar and cheer like I thought we should have been. Still: awesome.

And then it was act two, in which the mentally broken Ernest is taken to a tea party in Wonderland to see if the various people can put him back together again. This involves dancing across the table, getting a few lucky audience members in hats and jackets and right next to the action, flips and spins and overall wildness building to a conclusion that had us all clapping – Ernest rejects the clinicians (who had been hiding between the start and finish as our very talented musicians) and becomes one with Alice’s crew. Only … whoa, there were the rest of the audience, still sitting down politely, completely visible in transverse staging in all of their glued-to-their-seatsness. PEOPLE THIS WAS AWESOME HOW COULD YOU NOT RESPOND BETTER? All I can say is, me, I was thrilled to bits to get to see this great show in such an intimate environment, and I can’t wait for a chance to see it again, preferably at the Peacock and with a crowd of unrestrained people who will give it the roars of enthusiasm it deserves. I loved my trip down the rabbit hole! My only regret is a few of the Royal Ballet dancers didn’t get stuck in while ZooNation is in residence – I think the cross-pollination would have done both side marvels – and taken this show utterly over the top.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 13, 2014. It continues through January 3rd. A few tickets keep becoming available so try looking now, you might get lucky!)

Review – Neil Bartlett’s A Christmas Carol – Metal Rabbit at Old Red Lion

December 15, 2014 by

Christmas is here! That means mince pies and pantos and paper crowns and presents! Lots and lots of presents! Spending money and getting things and STUFF and eating and drinking too much and fun!

And that’s it, right?

Or … maybe there’s a little something more to it.

The little bit more is posited in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” which I try to see at least once a year. Its message, which is, in part, that the poor will (probably) always be among us and that caring for them is actually a duty of being human, is one I find extremely relevant these days. As libertarianism, Ayn Randism, and other isms look out upon the poor and label them “scroungers” who deserve what they get, I can’t help but think this Victorian tale sounds as if it could have been written by a modern day Swift who wants to show us the ugliness underlying our opinions.
Christmas Carol

It’s hard not to see how these many adaptations have glammed it up and emphasized the ghosts and the noise and fun of this story: but, thankfully, in this production at the Old Red Lion we get a chance to see the story stripped down like an old piece of furniture: the knots and burls, the joins and the texture all brilliantly visible without layers of paint between us and it. We have six actors: a Scrooge (Alexander McMorran, weep that he does not sing more) and five others, and no Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come at all. The actors move fluidly from role to role, with only Scrooge staying the same.

The effect, in this small theater, is quite intense. We are forced to use our imagination, to see snow in tossed paper, coins in clinked chain, and generosity in handfuls of tinsel. It is a very effective Empty Space aesthetic, which comes home to me most painfully in two scenes. The first is the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, which is a puffed up paper bag which the five of them tear to bits; their Christmas pudding is revealed, with great to-do, to be an even tinier paper bag, perhaps the size of a fist. It’s all so pathetic, the desperate scrabblings of a family who almost never get to have meat, and who won’t have more than a teaspoon of pudding each: I couldn’t help but think of that damned Baroness who said just a few days ago that poor people don’t eat well because they don’t know how to cook. Even Scrooge is horrified by just how little the Cratchits have to go around, but at least he’s not blaming their want on poor culinary skills.

Later we come to the scene where Scrooge sees a dead man stripped of his burial garments, to his horror. Normally this is done with Scrooge on the side with the Future Ghost watching a fake corpse in a bed, but in a “do less with more” moment we have Scrooge himself lying on the floor, his trousers and jacket being pulled off of him (he hasn’t been in his nightgown as is usual) by human scavengers who praise each other and vilify the man they are denuding. Scrooge’s paralysis, fright, and horror during this scene are palpable; and to have him end the moment wearing just his long johns physically shows us where Scrooge has come to mentally. His walls of protection, his emblems of status, have been taken from him, and now he is but a man, who must consider who he is in light of how he behaves toward other people. He has discovered not just that he is unloved and unwanted, but that he is a source of misery for others; and, indeed, that by his actions he could become far more than just a person who has put yet a bit more money in the bank. He now wants to create something of real value, something that holds meaning even when you stand alone and nearly naked; and to do this, he must act to care for his fellow man. He has been transformed; and in the 70 tight minutes of this show, it is difficult to imagine how more junk or people could have expressed this better. I can only hope that Baroness Jenkin herself might realize that instead of blaming the poor for their struggles, she should try taking direct action to alleviate poverty: to be a little less Marie Antoinette and a little more “God bless us every one.”

(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on Saturday, December 13th, 2014. It continues through January 3rd.)

Guest review – White Christmas (the West End musical) vs White Christmas (the movie) – Dominion Theater

December 8, 2014 by

Good friends and good shows … it’s a combination impossible for me to resist at Christmas. So when one of my best friends invited me to see White Christmas at the Dominion Theater, I immediately said yes. Afterwards, we got into a lively discussion about how this production compared to the movie we both love. With a little encouragement, I was able to convince her to take her extensive knowledge of the movie and really go through the changes between the original and the stage production … for the benefit of the other White Christmas fans out there who want to know whether or not they should go. So without further ado … Aahhhamy!

To say I’m a fan of White Christmas the film would be an understatement. I grew up watching this film at least once every Christmas for as long as I can remember. It is one of my mom’s favorite Christmas films and one that I grew to love as a favorite as well. It is a film I can happily watch start to end and then watch all over again. I wanted to dance like Judy, sing like Betty, crack jokes like Phil, and listen to Bob croon all day.

Now enter White Christmas the Musical playing here in London to which when I saw the posters on the tube advertising the coming show my heart did a little skipped beat and I had to go see it.

Now I know that when a film is adapted to stage, you expect there to be some plot changes in order to make the production better suited to the stage. I also know that Crosby & Clooney’s shoes are not easy ones to fill when it comes to song. I was gauging my expectations as the stage show wasn’t going to be the film that I loved but I hoped it would at least be a respectable tribute to my beloved classic.

To overview, there were bits I loved, bits I hated, and bits I understood why they changed, and while it was a fun experience overall, it was definitely not as good as version as the film I love.

The most obvious change would be the swap of several of the numbers from the film for other Berlin songs. In absence were “I’d Rather See a Minstral Show”, “Mister Bones”, “Mandy”, and “Choreography” which were replaced with “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”, “I Love a Piano”, “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” but with only a couple done as performance numbers. “Gee I Wish I was Back in the Army” made a brief appearance for a whole bar at the start and that was the entire nod it got. A few other Berlin numbers made it into the show as well to be remixed with existing numbers from the film, particularly “How Deep Is the Ocean” sung with “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” which felt a bit wrong to me.

My biggest pain point was the change in dynamics of the relationships between the four main characters as none of the relationships seemed to muster a believable dynamic. Bob & Phil felt more like colleagues than the close friends they were in the film. Betty & Judy were a very defined older and younger sister in the film but on the stage it just felt like they were just BFFs. When paired off, Bob & Betty felt a bit forced and lacking. Though perhaps that was because their relationship in the stage show took back seat to that of Phil & Judy who seemed to always be on stage together whereas in the film the whole driver behind their getting together was as a sham to get Bob & Betty together before it turned into a real one.

While looking at the characters, there were some changes to the characterization of the supporting characters from the film to stage. The stage version General was fun and while not quite the stoic version of the film, I didn’t mind the slight deviation. Emma the housekeeper / receptionist for the Inn was a bit more lively and pronounced for the stage show than she was in the film. While I preferred the more comic relief role she played in the film, the stage show interpretation was quite fun, though she overpowered pretty much everyone else on stage in performance. Susan, the General’s granddaughter, they aged down from 16 in the film to about 10 in the stage show, probably figuring it was easier to work in numbers for a cute kid than a teenager.

The stage production also added several additional characters, which to me seemed pretty unnecessary additions. There was Ezekiel the stagehand with his simple “ah, yep” that came across more Canadian than New England and really didn’t do much for the story. The overly manic stage manager was mostly annoying and really didn’t do much for the story. Same opinion holds for the costumer who just seemed to be present with the occasional line or two. Sheldrake the booker for the Ed Sullivan show seemed to be the only character addition who actually seemed to help the plot along.

In additional to the character and plot changes, my other beef with the show as the costuming choices. Could they have made the two girls look dowdier? Could they have picked less appealing dresses for the final number? Nearly every time a character came on stage I wanted to cringe at what they were wearing. I can see not replicating the film costume for costume, but still at least pick something that is appealing and period appropriate. Part of what I love about the film is the classic Hollywood glamour from the 50’s with the costumes and the stage show just seemed to really fall flat on that front.

To summarize, it was definitely not the film I love. There were bits of it still there but at lot of it changed. And while I was expecting some change, there was a lot more than seemed necessary. I enjoyed the show for what it was and had fun seeing it. But now having seen the stage show once, I probably wouldn’t go again and I’d rather just watch the film for the 100th some time. But if you’re still angling to see the stage show and you know and love the film as much as I do; I would strongly recommend going in with dialed down expectations. And maybe have the film ready in the DVD player to watch when you get home.

…. And that’s, I think, an even better summary of the show than I could have ever managed. If you are just looking for a safe show to take Grandma to the theater to see, then this will probably fit the bill: but if you want your heart to swell with joy, well, that’s what DVDs are for. And if you just want an excellent musical, I hear Assassins might be transferring.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, December 6, 2014. It is booking through January 3rd.)

Review – Mrs Hudson’s Christmas Corker – Spymonkey at Wilton’s Music Hall

December 7, 2014 by

For all that I love to go to the theater, it’s rare that I get invitations to go with other people, especially fully fledged “Here’s a particular show that I want to see and a date and everything” kind of stuff – unless it’s one of my Twitter friends with a spare to something. So when a friend of mine who lives out of town proposed a Saturday trip to the lovely Wilton’s Music hall to see a show by Spymonkey – well, I said yes without even looking up the details. I’d seen their Hound of the Baskervilles at the Duchess Theater in the distant past (apparently before I started this blog) and enjoyed it enough for it to burn its way into my mind for seven long years, waiting for this very moment to pipe up and say, “Oh yes, Spymonkey! They’re kind of funny, aren’t they! Let’s do it.” And so we did.

Now, Wilton’s is a bit of a stretch to get to but an utterly charming venue with a nice bar and great vibe once you get there. And this show, with a quirky three piece band and four very silly actors, seems to be well suited to the venue (and the occasionally shit sight lines don’t seem to be much of an issue). The show is set in Victorian times, in the Sherlock Holmes period – why, by gum, the Mrs Hudson of the title is actually Sherlock Holmes’ landlady – so the costuming and occasional music hall bits seemed to fit the atmosphere very well. The gag is that we are going to watch Sherlock Holmes solve some mysteries, sometimes with Watson, sometimes without, and occasionally with the assistance of random other people who are clearly one of the same four actors wearing a different costume. The actors are all having a good time and the audience was occasionally roaring with laugher – they were well up for the evening.

I, however, found myself a bit left behind by the whole thing. I didn’t get the second joke (a bit with Karl Marx singing something in German apparently from a 70s British TV show – passed right over my head), I was actually a bit upset when Watson was moping about Holmes being abusive to him, and the pattersong was done too quick for me to follow along. However, by the time the final mystery appeared – just how does a virgin get pregnant – I was having enough of a good time allow for a substantial suspension of disbelief as Holmes and crew made their way back 2000 years in time. I loved the arguments between God and the angel Gabriel, and was completely amused by Gabriel’s lascivious attraction to Mary, who had apparently gone without much physical attention in her life and seemed like she was likely to have none in the future – touched by an angel indeed! When God really chewed out Gabriel for behaving inappropriately, my sympathy was entirely with Gabriel, who at least recognized that Mary has a right to have pleasure no matter how much she was going to go down in history as a baby making machine. Go Mary! Go Gabriel! And go Spymonkey for making the most blasphemous play I’ve ever seen. Made me proud to be in a country where people weren’t walking around going, “HARRUMPH I’ve just been insulted” or, er, protesting or, um, setting the building on fire. So while the rest of the evening was a bit limp, the show ended like a rocket, BANG BANG mystery solved! It gave a whole new twist to the turn “getting into the Christmas spirit.”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 6, 2014. It continues through December 31st.)

Mini-review – Hope – Royal Court

December 7, 2014 by

After three nights of pantos, I was certainly ready for some straight theater, and Hope at the Royal Court seemed promising. A “a funny and scathing” “urgent” political play sounded like just the thing for me, since I feel really angry about what’s been going on in the UK since the ConDem coalition got in and I think it’s exactly the kind of topic that is well handled by playwrights – fast to get out the satire while the burn is still there.

The plot is about a group of councilors in a smallish town in the Labour part of England who are having to make decisions about where to make cuts in order to manage their budget under the much reduced financial situation they’ve been handed by Westminster. Now, as an American, I was finding a lot of the background information very confusing. I didn’t get the feeling these people actually were elected locally – they seemed to be picked by their party – and they seemed to depend solely on money derived from the central government to cover their expenses. They did point out that they could raise some taxes, but that there was a (Westminster generated?) law that tax rises over 1.9% had to go to “the people” for approval. The near complete reliance on external money and the total non-concern with re-electability was a change in world view I had to accept; but an environment in which a local government was controlled by the opinion of the central government about how they spent their money blew me away – tabloid press hysteria was winning the day and being so swayed by social media was hard to conceive. Nobody in Arizona gives a second thought to DC complaining about how Arizona makes their budget; and DC would never tell Arizona to go back on a budget they’d made. Setting voting districts, maybe: but not spending money.

But I do understand all too well that the current government has managed to dance away from taking responsibility for cuts by letting “local” governments figure out their own budgets and then take the heat. But where, I ask, is the rage about the people who decided to cut the money in the first place? How did it become the different people who might lose money fighting against each other? Watching the little people running around on stage (for little they were from my perch in the balcony), the whole thing just seemed tragic and depressing. What is wrong with people? How has saving the banking industry and making it easy for international corporations to move their profits to their shareholders instead of spending it in the country where it was earned become the status quo? Why aren’t people more outraged? If only Hope had really been a comedy instead of being a play with some funny bits (best scene: schoolboy Jake – Tommy Knight – trying to be ultra suave with councillor Julie – Sarah Duncan Brewster – and getting called out for staring at her chest) and a few interesting characters. It sucked all of the hope out of me and left me pretty down. Ah well, back to bread and circuses tomorrow

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 4, 2014. It continues through January 10, 2015.)

Review – Treasure Island: Curse of the Pearl Necklace – Above the Stag Theater

December 5, 2014 by

It’s odd to be going to shows not as the wide eyed novice, but as the return visitor who has pretty clear ideas about what to expect. I love being surprised; but there’s a lot to be said for choosing a known quantity with an anticipatable payout. In the case of the Above the Stag panto, this means lots of crude jokes, a queen for a dame, and a gay lead character. They’re shows meant for adults (it is in a pub after all) and they go down best with rather a lot of drinks. Sounds like a winning formula, don’t you think?

This year we have a new script (one I hadn’t heard of as a panto piece before), “Treasure Island,” which, with usual subtle humor has the add-on title “Curse of the Pearl Necklace.” Now, this is plenty rude enough, but as it turns out the necklace in question is a major part of the story line and has absolutely no connection to whatever sort of dirty thing you might have thought it meant. It’s a piece of jewelry, it is held together (a bit too tightly in some scenes) with a clasp, it draws misfortune on the wearer – and, unsurprisingly, it draws rude jokes at the end of the show. And in the middle, if I remember correctly, and possibly even the first time it appears on stage. In fact, one might think this item was chosen for its endless ability to feed tasteless humor; even at the end of the show I was still laughing as the jokes had become fresh again (as had my drink).

So, plot! This year we are transported to Cornwall, where Sally Hawkins (Philip Lawrence, on good form) runs a trashy little pub called the Royal Bumboy with her son Jim (Lucas Livesy, bandy legged and believably on the make) and his friend Marina the adorable young lesbian (Briony Rawle, very sunshiny). Into their lives walks baddy Long John Silver (Alex Wood, not quite evil enough for the part) and Prince Daryl of Atlantis (Luke Webber, hunky). Silver wants a map to buried treasure, Daryl wants to get home, and everyone else mostly seems to be looking for love. Will happiness be found for all (except those who have lost certain parts of their anatomy, not their hands, and had them replaced by a hook)? Will The Captain (Andrew Truluck) find his missing daughter Miranda (Ellen Butler) before his other daughter Josephine (also Ellen Butler) can take over her share of her trust fund? Will Merman Ethel become human again? Will the man in the front row that Silver keeps flirting with ever take offense? Will the audience be able to finish their drinks after they’ve been shpritzed with silly string? These are the kind of questions this show raises, and, believe me, it’s definitely not Chekov.

I was actually a bit disappointed with this production despite really liking the characters and enjoying some of the clever settings (the boat was great) and ideas (an island with tide pools filled with booze cracks me up). We had some great characters to work with (Marina was great, our dame Sally was extremely strong, and Ellen butler was hysterical in her dual role), but it didn’t really gel for me. The songs were few and forgettable, but mostly the cast didn’t seem like they’d gelled with each other. I was also really hoping for some slightly more subversive/political humor than we got … was this just too grim of a year to poke fun at the politicians? Still, this was my third panto in a row, and early in the run, so I expect the show will firm up (ho ho ho) as things settle in. If you’re looking for a gay old time, this is the right show to see, and it will only be more charming with a bit of pirates’ punch poured down your throat. Arr, mateys! No kids and just the kind of people you’d want to hang out with in the audience, why not make this where you find your Christmas cheer?

(This review is for the performance that took place on December 3, 2014. It continues through January 10th.)

Review – A Lad in Tights – Prince of Wales Pub, Covent Garden

December 3, 2014 by

It’s been nearly three years since SG Productions burned their way into my brain with their off season revival of Snow White and the Seven Poofs. Something about the combination of ultra crass jokes (somehow I’d never thought much about the precise relationship of Snow White to the dwarves) and of exteremely harsh drag queens engaging in withering repartée with the audience really tickled my funny bone. Their next show, Cinderfella, had me laughing until I cried and got an unheard of three visits. So I was ready and eager for this year’s A Lad in Tights, and rushed to see it on opening night, utterly missing the change in location and new start time – nine PM! Plenty of time to get soused beforehand, right? But, wow, not ideal on a Tuesday night. (NOTE: start times vary, please check TicketWeb.) And if you’re wondering, no, they don’t keep it slim so you can head out at 10:30 – I was only released into the wild at 11:35 PM. Consider yourself warned: this is full length panto starting at 9 PM and unless you feel like ducking out at the interval (which is around 10:40) you will not be getting home at a reasonable hour. So let us not take the path of Princess Nymphomaniac (Simon Gross) and whine endlessly about missing the last train home: we shall instead follow the advice of Widow Wankey (er, Twankey – Joe Meloy) and remember that adults just take the night bus and get on with it, unlike theater critics who have more brains than sense and can’t actually remember a damn thing on a publicity email shot that had been sitting around for two months unloved except for the reminder on the calendar. (The fact it was still showing on the Green Carnation’s website as being there and being at 7:30 did add to my confusion.)

Rah! So, we start off with a little raffle, led by our beautiful leading boy, Aladdin (Stephanie Von Clitz, really a very traditional leading boy in many ways, most especially re: long legs and very short outfits but also re: being just very warm as a performer), then plunged into the real reason why I come to these pantos: not to watch our villain Abenazar (Iain Dootson) glower and grimace and rhyme (only to be ultimately defeated by the combined forces of Good) – no, I come to watch our two very dragged up dames get into it with the audience. Gross and Meloy were really on fine form, not just hideously ugly (the Princess’ false teeth fell out and were laying on the stage for a lot of Twankey’s first scene, which had me about peeing myself) but really scathing and just a bit mean. Sadly, they recognized me and passed me by (unless I was being really gobby – I did get some action later in the show), but the pink jacketed blonde American in the front row really just got it in spades. Jokes about Americans being stupid or not getting panto were really just a bit boring for me (as I am American and very much get panto, even if I can’t do the Chicken Dance), but the woman got up FROM THE FRONT ROW to go to the bathroom (twice) and to the bar, and was actually blocked by Twankey during one of her attempted exits. Then the woman ATTEMPTED TO TAKE A FUCKING PHOTO DURING THE SHOW. Jesus Christ. I mean, we’re in a pub and all but it’s JUST NOT FUCKING ON and she was SITTING IN THE FRONT ROW. This resulted in Twankey grabbing her phone and dropping it in her laundry basket and giving a stern talking to. Which begs the question: can I get Meloy and Gross to come to other shows with me, because I am sick and tired of rude audience people thinking that the theater is a USE YOUR PHONE AS YOU WILL zone. There’s American and then there’s rude and Pink Jacket crossed a line.

Ah, yes, and the rest of the show! As ever, A Lad in Tights provided lots of singalongas – almost every song was participatory (Material Girl and YMCA were personal favorites, sadly I can’t keep up with that modern stuff like Rollercoaster and even I Need a Hero is a bit much for me) – and both of the supernumaries (Natalie Anson as the slave of the ring and Tom Willis as whatever needed doing) were extremely toned and prone to dancing around in things that were both transparent and very short (phoar!). Then quite late in the show the actual genie showed up and man! Nathan Powell rocked in his rock-solid presence – never have I seen a genie who looked so much like one out of a fairy tale! Of course, he did have a pretty foul mouth, but there’s not really a character in these shows that’s allowed to keep it clean. And that’s what I want: rude jokes that have the tears running down my face, songs that get me up and dancing, a cast that’s having fun and going a bit wild with the ad lib (even though I’d probably trim 20 minutes from the second act just to keep the tension tighter). As a panto, A Lad in Tights really delivers a f**king good time, and it’s even better this year in a venue that doesn’t have screwed up sight lines. Extra bonus: the Prince Charles (nearly called it the Prince Charming) has better drink prices so you can really whoop it up. And I won the raffle but I can’t say what I won because this is a family friendly blog (sort of). Anyway, if you think you’re going to like this kind of thing, this show is just as much fun as it has been before, which all goes to show you that once you find a good panto team you need to stick with them.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014. Start times vary widely depending on the day, but you can be sure the levels of rudeness should be stable throughout the run.)

Review – Billy the Kid (a Panto Western) – Charles Court Theater at Rosemary Branch

December 2, 2014 by

Walking up the stairs to the Rosemary Branch theater – three bus stops away from Old Street (and thus far, far from civilization) – and with a person I barely knew accompanying me, I suddenly had a very uncomfortable feeling about where my night was headed. I was going to see a panto I’d never heard of performed by an opera company in a pub theater. Hello, incipient night of a thousand horrors including the part where I have to apologize to my companion at the end of the evening for taking them to something naff! The cowboy hats on the box office staff suddenly seemed oppressive. And, seriously, how is a story about a frontier era murderer supposed to be a panto? GAAAH it was too late I couldn’t run away! IT WAS IN FRONT OF ME!

Fortunately my brief moment of pre-show nerves was completely uncalled for. I reminded myself that this was actually the company whose Patience still has me giggling into my hanky from time to time (“A Sports Direct young man!”) but there’s so much required to do good panto I struggled to see how they could manage it. As our cast slowly rolled onto the stage – Buckaroo Dan (Joanna Marie Skillett, took me a while to realize she was a leading boy and not just a blonde cowgirl), the Sheriff (Amy J Payne), and Nelly (booming bass John Savournin, also doing a turn as Nelly’s twin Lotta Hormones or something silly like that), I sat cringing a bit with fear, especially as the puns started to roll. Oh God, old songs with new lyrics and all the vibrato, it’s going to be hell! Then we had the grand entry of Billy the Kid … who, it turns out, was a goat, and Dan’s best friend. Suddenly it was all working and I was in Panto land and we were watching a fairy tale and having a good time!

Although this show steered (get it?) clear of political jokes, there was plenty of pop culture references, starting with a brilliant line up of parodied songs (“House of Fun” one of my favorites, but very surprised to hear “Bang Bang” as well) and extending to movie jokes (Ghost and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Then there was more sexual innuendo than you could shake a tent pole at (this in fact was one of the jokes) and even a hysterical peyote-fueled puppet scene in which coyotes did barbershop quartet (such an appropriate punishment for a bad goat, I think). There was plenty of audience involvement, from boos and singalongas to an, um, chance to pull on buffalo teats (more innuendo). Taking this right over the top into truly excellent, however, were the brilliant voices of the cast members. I have to say, the love duets that inevitably happen in panto to me are like unto farts that stink up the room, but in this case even the endless horror that is “Love Life Us Up Where We Belong” took on a Lakme like charm as delivered by the shimmering voices of Skillett and Nichola Jolley (playing – I kid you not – Pocabeaver). And the group work (with Bruce Graham as baddie Mumford) was just amazing – hearing those pro pipes attacking pop songs was just sheer pleasure. Frankly, I’ve probably never heard such a uniformly excellent group of singers in a panto, but to have it mixed with a charming story line and jokes that had the whole audience roaring was simply unheard of. As, I’m afraid, this panto was for me, so this cowgirl’s advice is to GET OFF YER HORSE and GETCHER FOOL SELF to the Rosemary B. “Ranch” for this rip-roaring bust up of a show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 1st, 2014. It continues through January 10th.)

Mini-review – God Bless the Child – Royal Court Theater

December 1, 2014 by

I have to say, given my general dislike of child performers, God Bless the Child at the Royal Court seemed like a show custom designed to send me screaming out of the theater. And then as I walked into the Jerwood Upstairs, and lo and behold, I was walking into a primary school classroom, going down the hall past the low-hanging coathooks and lockers, and then sitting on plastic chairs on the edge of a room with shortened tables (and lilypads and toadstools) in the center, and paper maché mobiles hanging from the ceiling, and posters covered with class projects. And then the actors marched on stage and suddenly the weird comments in the program (“Thank you Vicki Featherstone for never being tempted to use puppets”) made sense – because there were, what, nine kids of about 8 years on stage? The horror! The horror!

The story was actually not only new but quite modern in its concerns and electrically focused on modern politics – to be honest, blazing quite confidently into Shavian territory but with nearly no need to lecture us as the expense of entertainment (unlike some shows I could mention). Yet even without the politics the premise is interesting: a young girl decides that the teaching program she’s being a subject of/subjected to is ridiculous, and begins to protest against its methods in ways that underline its ineffectiveness. The heat is turned on when it’s revealed to us by Headmistress (aka school principal for us Americaners) Ms Evitt (Nikki Amuka Bird) that she’s putting the squeeze on the class’s teacher Ms Newsome (Ony Uhiara) to make it work or else … or else the school will continue to struggle financially. So despite us sympathizing with Louis (Nancy Allsop)’s campaign of undermining this corporate sponsored pap, we can’t help but also feel that the adults are trying to make it work out of generally positive concern for the school.

However, as the play carries on, while Louis (now styled King Louis) continues her reign in increasingly mad fashion, we get the addition of both the not very nice creator of the Badger Does Best system, Sali Rayner (Amanda Abbington, chilling), and some frightening realizations about just why having Badger teaching the kids might not be a good idea. In fact, by the time the denoument rolled around, between the increasing hysteria of Sali and The King, I was beginning to think we were looking at a very grim play indeed. That’s some of the fun of seeing a new show – you never know what to expect. And for this show, I think you can take my word that it’s just a really great ride and go for it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 24, 2014. It continues through December 20th.)

Mini-review – Dracula (the ballet) – Mark Bruce Company at Arts Depot

November 26, 2014 by

I haven’t been reviewing ballet much lately, but I also haven’t been making treks to the great depths of Southern Yorkshire to go see productions of shows I’m especially interested in. Well, this isn’t entirely true: I made it to Whitby Abbey to see the charming Dracula 5696 put on, but that wasn’t the reason I was in Whitby. No, I made to to the dark wild north – of Finchley – because I was dying to see (get it?) Dracula, the ballet production by the Mark Bruce company. By the time I navigated the 15 minute walk from the Tube station (and the 1:10 tube journey from Paddingon) I was feeling dispirited. Could it possibly worth it? I mean, if this was really good, it would be at Sadler’s Wells, right?

As it turns out, this show was well worth the journey (in part because the 2:00 running time meant I got home around 11 rather than midnight as I had feared). The show was surprising to me in so many ways, from the music to the use of masks/puppets to the quite unexpected presence of the human voice is what so frequently is a mime show. The set was fairly static – a hint of a house with windows, a wrought iron gate – but in front we had tombstones, tables, beds, endlessly remaking the stage in front of us into what we needed for the scene. Our fairly constant companions for our voyage from Whitby to Transylvania and back were the three seductive Brides of Dracula, who were especially funny when they did a turn as Lucy’s maids (giving us big grins with pointy teeth in case we’d forgotten where we’d seen them before).

The production did a very nice job of creating a dark atmosphere, starting with the opening scene – Dracula taking a baby from a pack of wolves and handing it to his female minions – and carrying through to the heartbreak of the boat scene, where the sailors (and captain) one by one die on the stage. My favorite bit, though, was the hectic ride from the village to Castle Dracula, with puppet headed horse women (the brides again, I’m pretty sure) making a mad dash while the wolves surrounded and snapped at them. It was a great bit of dance theater and probably had a better sense of tension than any movie version I’ve seen of this.

And while spooky much of this was, there were also some strong moments of humor – Dracula’s soft shoe to a twenties (?) song about a bear, complete with top hat and a cane, as well as the scene where Lucy has three men propose to her in short order – to keep thing from becoming morbid or maudlin. But then you had lots of sexiness – Dracula winning over Lucy, then quite soon after breaking Mina’s spirit – mixed with intensely visceral, luscious dancing that, well, made me want to show my next. Overall, I’d say it was a very successful production, and while I’m sorry it wasn’t playing in central London, I’m very happy that so many people have had a chance to see this highly entertaining show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 25th, 2014. It closes tonight.)


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