Review – King Lear – The Malachites at Peckham Asylum Chapel

February 26, 2015 by

King Lear, Act Four: “I am mightily abused. I should e’en die with pity/ To see another thus. I know not what to say.” Never did these lines seem more relevant than in last night’s production of King Lear, when the mighty John McEnery was reduced to reading these words to a paying audience from a script held in his hand. I had first thought, when he pulled the papers from his pockets (before the interval!) that it was some kind of joke upon the infirmity of Lear (McEnery prefaced it by saying “We only got four days rehearsal”), but as the show carried on and he continued to read from a clearly marked script, I realized it was simply the horrible, horrible truth: our lead had not learned his lines. As he sat cradling the dying Cordelia, McEnery’s eyes flicked back and forth from her face to the pages in his hands, and any ability to suspend disbelief was utterly ruined. There were pauses as he scanned the lines looking for his place and a feeling of tension caused by the fear that the other actors (especially the very fine Fool, Samuel Clifford) might knock the crumpled lump from his hands. I felt angry and bitter and so very, very sorry for the other actors. Stephen Connery-Brown (Earl of Gloucester) and Ludovic Hughes (Edgar) nearly had me in tears as they stood on the cliff tops of Dover: how could Lear let them down so badly? Why didn’t they just put a beard on Nicholas Finegan and let him get on with being the old man? He certainly didn’t need prompting for the Malachites’ Richard II.

Is it something special about this role? Just a month before it nearly killed Brian Blessed. Is it just too much for a really old actor to do? Should we be expecting Lears to collapse on or off stage from the effort the role requires? I thought when I saw Ian McKellan in it some years ago that it was supposed to represent the crown to a career, not a tombstone; but perhaps My Perfect Mind tells the story better – that this really is just an incredibly hard struggle for someone to maintain at the end of their (acting) life and it could be just too much for an old man to manage.

If McEnery gets his homework done right, this will be a good show; he captures the role better than Blessed did (a low bar but I’ll note the Bellowing Monarch never once needed a cue), and I hope for the sake of the Malachites’ upcoming run at the Rose that this does happen in short order. As for me, I would have walked out at the insult to me as an audience member, but I’d made a commitment to review the show, so sit through it I did (with my wonderfully cheap cup of Malachite tea after the interval). The space is lovely with good acoustics, its own disintegration capturing Lear’s crumbling mind; the costuming delightfully wintery (all fur and boots and capes); the two elder sisters joyously devolve, Edgar looks damn fine in a loincloth and mud, and the blankets took care of my coldness just fine. (I found Cordelia a bit wooden but she is hardly on stage enough to bother.) But there are some stage sins that cannot be forgiven; let us hope they are not repeated in the days to come.

(This review is for Wednesday, February 25th, which was nearly a full week since opening night and well long enough to get that script memorized no matter what excuses McEnery muttered. It continues through March 5th and then I was told is moving to the Rose theater April 7 through 30th.)

Review- Ruddigore- Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theatre

February 22, 2015 by

I wasn’t familiar with Ruddigore, which is apparently one of the least performed operettas in the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, but I’m enthusiastically aware of Charles Court Opera since I saw their hysterical reworking of Patience this past summer. I’ve believed for years that, in the right hands, Gilbert and Sullivan positively shines; but it takes a lot of work to blow off the dust and get to the diamonds of comedy and song-craft beneath. Sasha Regan has been doing it for years with her all male shows: Charles Court’s decision to people Patience with Goths showed similar anti-fustiness tendencies. So they set Ruddigore as a Hammer Horror style fright show? Bring it!

Initially, it’s a little hard to stomach the pastel costumes of the professional bridesmaids, Ruth (Susanna Buckle) and Zorah (Andrea Tweedale), but their singing is lovely. However, as the story begins to unfold, I had more than a bit of a whiff of Patience – we once again had “lovesick maidens” being thwarted by a comically disinterested heroine – only this time, Rose Maybud (Rebecca Moon) can’t fall in love because nobody can meet her standards of etiquette. Despite having nearly the same mentality as Patience, she is actually a comic heroine drawn in fantastically broad strokes – an instant classic. Carrying around her little book of advice and referring to it in every situation – she’s a character I’ll remember for ages. But it still seems like G&S were running short of ideas at this point in their careers, because when she has her first duet with the man she loves (“I know a youth”) the structure seemed almost exactly lifted from Patience’s “Prithee, pretty maiden.” But, again, Rose and “Robin” (Matthew Kellet) are lovely singers and fun to watch, so it was a pleasure even if it didn’t feel fresh.
RUDDIGORE Guiltily Mad - Sir Despard (John Savournin) Photo Bill Knight
Fortunately, the plot, which had been starting to flounder, picks up mightily with the introduction of sailor Richard Dauntless (Philip Lee), who not only gets to talk in a broad Cornish accent but dances a hornpipe AND gets to flirt with all of the ladies. Shortly after he appears, we move on to the real fun, which is the story of the bad baronets of Ruddigore. To my pleasure, this meant the return to the stage of John Savournin, who’d nearly killed me with laughter as the dame of Charles Court’s panto. And, to make it better, he had a starring role in the second half, as a dead Count Ruddigore – I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but with a face as mobile as his, he was born to the role. Not to mention he does have such a buttery voice (if you can say buttery when talking about a deep baritone). The Ruddigore element is where the Hammer Horror staging really came to the fore – we had cheesy capes, Wascally Wabbit stalkings, and lots of screams. And, of course, it was shot through with the natural comedy of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lyrics and all of their joyous music (including, I was told, a song that is normally cut). This performance proved to me, once again, that Gilbert and Sullivan is alive and well and sparkling on the London stages, as eternally relevant as Shakespeare but with a lot more room for run. And – three times a charm – I’m now fully sold on Charles Court Opera and will henceforth be putting all of their performances in my calendar.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Thursday, February 19, 2015. It continues through March 14th.)

Mini-Review – Happy Days – Young Vic

February 20, 2015 by

I’m pretty sure that nobody in London would have bought a ticket for Happy Days at the Young Vic thinking that they were going to be listening to 50s music and watching The Fonz. No, amongst theater goers it’s quite famous as the play where the actress spends the performance buried from at least the waist down. It’s a play from the Absurdist period, and, given that it’s a Beckett, its themes are predictable at the start: our impending annihilation, the futility of existence, et cetera. The play can be accused of being about how people attempt to maintain their equilibrium in the face of unavoidable death (or perhaps a big metaphor on the hopeless loneliness of marriage or, more broadly, life), but I don’t want to examine it in that way. It’s certainly more powerful to see a play than just to read it, and this is a fine production (lively, unironic Winnie – Juliet Stevenson) with a truly impressive set (it looked like a slice of a mountain and even had regularly trickling rocks burying Winnie just a tiny bit more while we watched) and painful sound effects (I was tempted to pull in a health and safety inspector as I suspected ear damage might have happened – it really hurt my ears) – and for many of us, it’s a play you want to have on that life list.

But … why bother? I’m not interested in seeing a play just so I can sit around and discuss the symbolism of it all, especially given that this topic has been stamped into the ground long ago. It’s an existentialist museum piece brought to life. The sad thing, though, is that the Absurdism style is still massively relevant and an incredibly powerful theatrical tool when brought out in a vibrant context. When we need to shine a light on the ill doing of the powers that be, you can hardly do it any better than in a theatrical piece that mocks them. But how much safer to watch this gelding than go see the stallion currently prancing at the Bush Theater (Islands, closing this Saturday). If you want to see an animated (but convincingly life like) dinosaur, go see Happy Days, but if you want to see absurdist theater that leaves bruises, you’d be a fool to miss Islands – in fact, I would advise you to abandon Happy Days tickets bought for this weekend, take the loss, and see Islands instead; and if Beckett or Ionesco were around, they’d say the same thing.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 18th, 2015. It continues through March 21st. Ice creams are compulsory at the interval.)

Mini-Review – Islands – Bush Theatre

February 18, 2015 by

If you’re a little bit into this theater thing, you’re probably aware of the existence of plays which use (occasionally heavy handed) metaphors to make a wider point about the world around us. A good example of this is Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. It’s a play about the rise of fascism, but it uses the metaphor of people turning into rhinoceri to show the changes caused in the brain; but the whole thing is played pretty straight. We, the audience, never are TOLD what we are watching is not, well, a strange group metamorphosis. This “theater of the absurd” school to me seems more focused on being funny and goofy (I’m expecting the same at Happy Days tonight) rather than the more interesting “calling truth to power,” a thing I think theater is really uniquely qualified to do: because of it’s quick turnaround time, theater can publicly mock the powers that be much more quickly than a painter or a novelist. We’re certainly in a time when there’s a lot going on that needs to be called out, but instead of getting The Crucible we’re getting drippy crap like 2071 and Hope (and some good shows like God Bless the Child and Great Britain.

But, really, I think the degree of outrage about the corrupt underpinnings of our society has not been fanned nearly high enough by the theater that is currently being produced: and in this vacuum of politically relevant, highly charged theatrical events has been sucked Islands, a play that fully embraces the unreality of the absurdist theater movement but, rather than looking safely backwards, contorts itself madly at something happening right now that we’ve just come to accept as the way things are: offshore tax havens. Now, unless you’re an investor trying to shelter your money, you would probably not think about this for more than a minute a month, and only if some big corporation has gone up against the legislature and been shamed for “not paying their fair share of taxes.” I mean, these days, the conversation is so weakened, the outrage has become so feeble, that there are terms for “egregiously” avoiding and, presumably, normal levels of tax avoidance. Setting up an LLC to avoid tax on working for yourself, well, everyone does it: but pretending your company is based in Luxembourg so you can avoid paying VAT …. well, that’s egregious. And yet, as we know, completely and utterly legal. And while the UK government is working it’s hardest to squeeze an extra £20 a month out of people living on benefits, I haven’t heard sweet jack about any efforts to get Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple to pay their fair share of UK taxes – not a word. Nope, it’s make unemployed 20 year olds work full time for a fifth of the minimum wage and push apprenticeship programs that have wages so startlingly low only people whose parents are paying their rent can possibly afford to take one.

Islands jams all of this hypocrisy and bullshit into one glitter-filled clown car packed full of blood, shit and cherries, whipping off the doors to show us, laughingly (as if how could we ever think this is actually okay? we’re actually outraged, right?), via powerful, committed performances, that we have parallel worlds existing nearly close enough to touch, but the people who have the power to cut off the rich islands scudding overhead have somehow bought into the idea that it’s okay for them to be there. It’s not. We should be mad. We should be screaming. We should be setting their homes on fire. But we don’t. And really, if that’s the case, isn’t the joke on us?

(This review is for a performancet hat took place on Tuesday, February 17, 2014. It closes February 21.)

Review – Gods and Monsters – Southwark Playhouse

February 13, 2015 by

Growing up as a teenaged goth girl who associated with lots of gay men, it was a natural that when Gods and Monsters came out, I would rush to the cinema to see it. But 1998 is now a long time ago, and I could barely remember anything of the movie I’d seen nearly two decades ago. Something about an English director and a very sexy gardener, 1950s homophobia and … Frankenstein. There was sex and nudity – I remembered that – but it had mostly gone fuzzy. I can’t say I walked into the Southwark Playhouse to see this new adaptation as a blank slate, but what was there was pretty fuzzy.

So now it’s 2015 and I’m reevaluating the story as well as evaluating the play from a changed perspective, as a more mature person as well as a more informed cineaste and theater fan. I’m much more aware of the effect of World War I on the psyche, thanks to eight years of living in the UK and the wealth of recent productions kicked off by the centenary anniversary of the start of the Great War. I’m also, as a middle aged woman, interested in the depiction of strokes on the stage. And finally, I have a more historically informed picture of what it meant to be gay in the United States in the decades before the 1980s – my interest in gay culture has continued, but it’s deeper and richer than it was when I lived in Phoenix, Arizona. And so, to see this play, examining the mental state of a WWI vet after a stroke, I find myself thinking that it was an opportunity missed to do something thoughtful and relevatory about the human condition. Instead, we (the audience) got a salacious hagiography, with us in the role of Kay (Joey Phillips), the (horribly overacted) biographer of director James Whale (Ian Gelder), watching over his shoulder as he slowly attempts to seduce handsome gardener Clayton Boone (Will Austin).

I can’t deny the audience seemed to lap the show up, but I was really sad that an obvious element was nearly entirely skipped over: Whale’s stroke has left his mind impaired in a variety of ways, and there seems to be a clear implication that he, as if struck by lightning, has become his own monster, unable to control his mind as it wanders back in forth in time, perhaps in truth become a monster. But though the flashback scenes to his youth and military service are set up clearly enough to show their impact on his ability to be in the present, to me it seemed he could have just been having a PTSD episode. Strokes can cause a lot of other damage as well, and listening to Whale recount the many people he’d worked with in perfect clarity, it seemed hard to believe he’d really taken that much damage from the stroke. And as a man depressed enough to be considering suicide, I’d expect a far greater impetus to do it than just having some uncomfortable memories come up.

If I was imagining this show was trying to depict his sexual appetites as monstrous, it’s not an easy sell, especially given the fact he’d lived openly as gay most of his life. Trying to seduce a strong, solid gardener? Not monster material at all. Not being successful? I’d expect that wasn’t something worth killing himself over, although it would have been an easy out story wise for this to have been so. So it’s a bit depressing that there seems to be no gods or monsters in this play, just a tired old man who in my eyes was pushy and a bit of a quitter.

However, the core element of humanity played true in the development of the relationship between Whale and Boone. Boone (Will Austin), with his nearly cartoon-esque physique, is not a very deep character and may actually make no sense historically, but I found his softening of his attitude about gay men genuinely touching. He is a kind man, despite his killer (literally) physique; and this made it hard for me to deal with watching Whale pursue him in an almost predatory fashion. Whale wants, not Boone’s body, but his mind, his will, his sense of morality. He wants to turn him into a monster. But he ends the play accepting him as a fellow human being. It would have been hard to swallow, but Ian Gelder’s rock-solid performance just gave me no room to believe in him as anything else other than the character he portrayed. I only wish that the character of the cinema history student and the maid Maria (Lachele Carl) could have been toned down to levels suitable for an intimate theater – this, more than the nearly two hour long first act, had me questioning whether or not I could stand to stay for the second act. But Gelder holds up nearly the entire show on his much thinner shoulders – for him, it is a tour de force. But the show, overall, is bloated and too grating for me to recommend. If you’re a fan of the movie, you want to see three handsome men get their kit off, or you have a thing for old Hollywood, you’ll probably have a good evening; but for me, the sum was less than the parts (and I did see quite a few parts). Perhaps the writer should have been less desirous of following the original movie script – but I can’t say as it’s been so long since I’ve seen it.

(This review is for opening night, February 10, 2015. Gods and Monsters continues through March 7th.)

Review – Anything Goes – Sheffield Theaters at New Wimbledon Theater

February 6, 2015 by

There was little to excite me about the revival of Anything Goes that was wending its way to the New Wimbledon theater for a late winter run. I’ve seen so much watery tat on stage there that, despite the fact it’s closer to my flat than any other full size house, I just automatically assume that anything they have there is going to be poor. I mean, it’s like they don’t really use a quality filter before they accept a booking (Russian State Ballet’s Swan Lake?), as if they think that living in Wimbledon kills people’s critical faculties and all they need to do is stick stuff on a stage and people will come look. You wonder, really, in the age of movie and TVs, how this could possibly work as a business model, but for profit theater is a bit of a mystery to me.

But then a sneaky thing happened, with word of mouth creeping in to change my mind. First, I got a direct, personal recommendation from TootingGareth, then PaulinLondon and JohnnyFox gave it a raving AudioBoo. I really trust these guys’ judgments, and Gareth apparently has a solid understanding of what I like from my musical theater: excellent productions with great dancing and songs you sing as you walk out the door. And this, I’m pleased to say, is a musical that ticks everything on my list. The talent they’ve recruited are snappy and professional, the costumes and set design are swoony, and they just went wild with the choreography. I was unable to tear my eyes away from the juicy delights in front of me: it was like the most exquisite of buffets, with every table featuring a different collection of sweet or succulent dishes. And it wasn’t just the “main courses” (“Anything Goes,” “Blow Gabriel Blow”) that were good – the forgettable “side dishes” had been transformed into memorable, exciting numbers that did far more than provide filler between dialogue. I mean, every time I hear “Gypsy In Me” on my copy of the soundtrack, I cringe a little, but with a scene stealing comic as Sir Evelyn (Stephen Matthews) bullfighting with Reno Sweeney (Debbie Kurup), suddenly the whole number rose to a level I never thought possible. It was funny, it was clever, it was engaging, it wriggled and jiggled, it crackled and popped. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: it was the National Gallery, it was Garbo’s salary, it was Ovaltine. And before it had always been filler. Wow.

I’m going to do my best to do a song my song review of this at some stage – oh, the yellow loungers the Sweeney girls reclined on while the crew danced the “Sailor’s Chanty!” – the pool the chorines “swam” out of on stage for the little dream ballet number! – but instead I’m going to pass on the great good news: this show is going on tour all over the UK, to Bristol, Torquay, Belfast, Cardiff, Aberdeen, and all sorts of different spots. It might even come back for a little time on the West End. And me, I’m going to make a road trip or two to see it, possibly to Southhampton and definitely to Woking. Yep, it’s that good. And if you like musicals, this is one production you won’t want to miss.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, February 4, 2015. It closes in Wimbledon on February 7. Tour dates follow.)

Anything Goes Tour Dates
9 – 14 February
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
16 – 21 February
Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent
23 – 28 February
The Churchill Theatre, Bromley
3 – 7 March
Alhambra Theatre, Bradford
9 – 14 March
New Theatre, Hull
16 – 21 March
Empire, Liverpool
23 – 28 March
Congress, Eastbourne
30 March – 4 April
Mayflower Theatre, Southampton
6 – 18 April
Opera House, Manchester
20 – 25 April
Kings theatre, Glasgow
27 April – 2 May
Orchard Theatre, Dartford
11 – 16 May
Royal & Derngate, Northampton
18 – 23 May
Swan Theatre, High Wycombe
25 – 30 May
Grand Opera House, Belfast
1 – 6 June
Grand Opera House, York
8 – 13 June
Theatre Royal Plymouth
15 – 20 June
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
22 – 27 June
Playhouse, Edinburgh
30 June – 4 July
Grand Theatre, Leeds
6 – 11 July
New Theatre, Cardiff
13 – 18 July
Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton
20 – 25 July
His Majesty’s, Aberdeen
3 – 8 August
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin
10 – 15 August
Princess Theatre, Torquay
17 – 22 August
Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth
31 August – 5 September
New Victoria Theatre, Woking
7 – 12 September
New Theatre, Oxford
14 – 19 September
Hippodrome, Birmingham
21 – 26 September
Milton Keynes Theatre, Milton Keynes
28 September – 3 October
Empire, Sunderland
5 – 10 October
Hippodrome, Bristol

Mini-review – Cats – Palladium Theater, London

January 31, 2015 by

I know, the 80s was a long time ago, and I’m not an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan (to put it lightly), but I’d still nearly made it to 50 without seeing Cats, and while this seemed mostly to me to be a matter of expressing my own taste in musical theater, I had begun to question if I’d actually shut myself out of a little slice of history. But seeing the Story of [British] Musicals made me think that rather than avoiding a schmaltzy show with tunes not suited to my tastes, I’d instead cut myself out of a slice of history. The program described Cats as a groundbreaking show, with its non-linear throughline (i.e. lack of plot) and its focus on bringing poems to life, not to mention the entire movement style and makeup.

But as the leg-warmer wearing crew came on the stage and their amplified voices blared painfully from an overhead speaker, I began to fear the worst. This show had been promoted on the back of a has-been pop star rather than any kind of musical theater performer, which indicated to me they were really just trying to pack the house with curiosity seekers rather than attract people who want to see a top-quality production. And, ooh, they’d added some rap – but it was really rap music as written by musical theater hacks, about as believable as Blondie’s “Rapture.” I struggled to find an emotion to hold on to – was this supposed to be anything other than pretty and bland? What was it about a woman wearing a long coat and dreads that was somehow supposed to make us feel wistful and nostalgic? The whole thing skated by with nary a moment of genuine feeling until Mr. Mistoffelees (Joseph Poulton) blazed onto stage like a comet – then, holy cats, what a performance! Leaps, spins, kicks, non-stop amazement and all while dressed in a doubtlessly extremely warm head to toe black spangled bodysuit. I don’t think there’s a moment in this show worth remembering aside from the time he spent on stage, but I’m excited to think I got to see one blazing talent during this dreary night – not that I wasn’t seeing a London quality cast of performers, but they were unable to shine under the weight of so much schmaltz. (White cat: you were great too.)

I gotta say, there’s no getting around the fact that never in a million years was this musical ever intended for the likes of me. I want intelligence, I want to be moved, I want to see talent and be amazed. I don’t want to be coddled and cuted. I want songs that matter; I want my night to be worthwhile. I don’t want fluff. And Cats, with its full house of apparently satisfied patrons (at £60 a pop), deserves to be put in a sack and tossed in the Thames forever: and now I can say this not based upon my best guess but upon actually having gone and watched it. Please, somebody warn me the next time I try to see an ALW show that we do not in any way share an aesthetic sense and send me in search of something else.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 20th, 2015. Unlike any of the professional reviews you might read, my tickets was paid for, in full, by myself, and my level of disappointment is based in part of what I expected to see for that price. It’s booking until April 25th, if I haven’t somehow discouraged you, but may I recommend you try to see Assassins or The Scottsboro Boys instead.)

Mini-review – Hello/Goodbye – Hampstead Theater

January 30, 2015 by

I think I’m beginning to get a feel for the programming of the Hampstead Theater. It seems a little conservative and it’s got a decided leaning toward the comic (as witnessed by both the nearly perfect Good People and the extremely funny Seminar). This is good, though, as after a brain warping day at work I am ready for a few laughs, so when a friend said she had a spare ticket for Hello/Goodbye on opening night, I said yes without doing any research on this show at all.

The concept of the play (you know this in the first five minutes, so not much of a spoiler) is that two twenty-somethings wind up in a flat which they’ve apparently both rented, only one of them actually has signed papers and the other person has keys and the habit of being serially disorganized. Other person, Juliet (Miranda Raison), initially attempts to bully Person One, Alex (Shaun Evans), into leaving, threatening to have her boyfriend come over and “squish your tiny head” and threatening GBH to the blue toy dinosaur Happy Meal toy Alex has taken a shine to. While Juliet is rampaging around madly and pulling every trick she can think of to manipulate Alex out the door, Alex is slowly drawing her out, getting her to talk to him, and exposing us to what a bag of issues she is. She’s actually managed to be kicked out of her last place and has no backup to live if she can’t stay in this apartment. Watching the two of them spar with each other – Juliet attacking with every weapon she has at her disposal, Alex so succesful at diverting he seems almost teflon-coated – I couldn’t help but laugh, loudly, at her outrageousness (she finally resorts to lingerie and partial nudity) and his hysterical inperturbility. He’s quite the nerdy boy, obsessed with his collections of stuff, yet still completely managing difficult social interactions – the way he diverts her boyfriend with a cup of coffee was an absolute classic, and by claiming to be excellent at sex in a completely non-putting-on-the-moves way managed to put his adversary off kilter as well. After half an hour, you can’t help but feel like they’re both people you know or have met, but the direction the first act is going to take starts to feel extremely inevitable long before the end comes. I found it an enjoyable ride, though, so was willing to forgive its more pat, sit-com-like tendencies. A good laugh was more than enough to compensate me for a few plot holes.

Sadly, the second act just fell over, with a plot twist I anticipated in the first five minutes and a very false feeling reference to, I think, a miscarriage. It’s many years later and things have changed but the two protagonists don’t seem to have evolved a bit. I got in maybe one or two giggles but it became more of a matter of moving toward the inevitable finish and dragging us somewhat unwillingly behind. The TV tendencies of the characters’ interactions became so strong I lost my ability to believe in or laugh at them – I was more laughing at how ridiculous everything had become. And the final, final ending, well … I don’t think it would be believable in a movie, much less the theater and certainly not in a television program. Oh well, it was a good first act, and really, if you’re looking for light entertainment and don’t have to spend too much to see this show (I’d advice under £20), it’s not a terrible evening overall. There’s just much, much better stuff available.

(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on January 29th, 2015. It runs through February 28.)

Mini-review – Bull – Young Vic

January 30, 2015 by

I’m someone who very much will follow playwrights rather than actors from stage to stage, and Mike Bartlett is one of a handful of currently active playwrights (Neil Labute, Nick Payne) that I try to see every time they do something new. Bartlett’s forte, to me, is correctly capturing how people think and behave now, in the modern world (Contractions being another one in this vein). He’s especially talented at showing how people lie to themselves – an element I find particularly attractive in plays – and is responsible for my favorite new work of the last five years, Cock. So there was no doubt in my mind that when I was told his short play Bull was going to be making its London debut at the Young Vic, I had to go, sold-out-ness be damned. And, as I hoped, a few tickets came though before the show, though through what seemed to me like very bad luck, my seated seat became a standing seat on the day of (a mix up of some sort, I was told, that affected about 20 people).

The small space at the Young Vic has been set up like an arena for this show, with waist-height glass walls surrounding a carpeted square defined only as an office by the presence of a water cooler. This look, with two rows of spectators standing at its edges, felt very much like a boxing ring: we paid our money to watch the action. As the besuitted actors walked in and immediately began to bicker with each other, I began to feel like I was backstage at a reality TV show, but the coworkers I was watching – who were clearly, each one of them, individually dedicated to destroying the others – displayed none of the pandering, “appealing to the home viewers” attitudes of people performing on TV. No, this was more like one of those nature documentaries in which happy gazelles bound across the plains until they’re taken down by a cheetah, only in this case it was a lion/rhino/crocodile battle – all muscle and heaving violence, but fought with the scalpel blades of words. Thomas (Sam Troughton) initially appears to be the rhino, stomping in and bellowing at Isobel (Eleanor Matsura), quickly going for personal insults on her sexual availability – but Isobel completely avoids his jibes and manages to deftly point out how his style of argumentation highlights his own shortcomings. Then Tony (Adam James) appears and the full level of the head games being played comes out. They all know that only two of them will survive, and, smelling blood, Tony and Isobel are bound and determined to make sure they’ve done their best to ensure survival of themselves. Bullying, insults, bringing up a colleague’s personal life, hiding vital information … all of the weapons of the office jungle come in to play, while we watch, breathless, on the side, as if at a bull-baiting pit with the dogs occasionally fighting each other and their handler egging all of them on, as if for maximum viewer enjoyment.

The cumulative effect of all of this verbal violence is overwhelming; it feels too real, too immediate. My brain was sending “thank God that wasn’t me” messages as the inevitable end played out, with pinstripe and patent leather clad predators slinking away while a third animal bled its life into the waterhole. All it needed was a vulture swooping in to take a first bite. It was an absolutely fantastic, hair-raising night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 27, 2015. It continues through February 14th.)

Preview review – Dara – National Theater

January 25, 2015 by

After my rant about the lack of cultural diversity in London theater programming, I was thrilled to pieces to see that the National Theater had picked up a play from Pakistan to present in London. Dara. To me, a play about two princes of Mughal India vying for power seemed like the perfect thing to lure in a broader slice of the British public than those I normally see at the National; and for me, as a regular theater goer, I was excited about seeing a play about royal power politics played on an entirely different stage from The James Plays and the endless stream of Henries.

But what I didn’t expect was to go see a play that was absolutely in the blazing heart of everything politically aware people are arguing about today. In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, Dara is a must-see show, presenting a 17th century tale of two competing visions of Islam that mirrors almost exactly the questions we are dealing with today. Is the world to be one in which strict interpretation of scriptures rule? This is the vision Prince Aurangzeb (Sargon Yelda) has, that as the new Emperor, he shall eliminate the softness of his father’s rule. It’s impossible to watch the lecherous, drunken Emperor Shah Jahan (Vincent Ebrahim) stumbling around without feeling like there’s really a need for a change, but is Aurangzeb what India needs? Dara is the crown prince, and, as played by Zubin Varla, he is full of charisma; an intellectual and born leader whose deep examination of religion (brought out during the course of the play) has given him the knowledge to connect with and respect all of his subjects.

But somewhere along the line, Dara and Aurangzeb have managed to come into conflict with each other, and the resolution of their family issues forms the warp and weft of this play. I have no idea if it has any basis in actual fact, but as family relationships go, it is believable and suitably dramatic. And for me, I raced to the end having no idea how the conflict would resolve itself. This was probably not the case for many other people in the audience, but I was on the edge of my seat, absolutely hanging on every word of the big trial scene, loving the chance to hear how one scholar chose to see Islam and the search for God presented on stage to a packed house of modern people. It was almost like listening to one of Aristotle’s old dialogues read out loud; the arguments went across the centuries, and the brilliant mind who created it still shone brightly through his words.

As a work of theater, there were some shortcomings. In particular, I found the character of Aurangzeb a bit shrill and lacking in depth, as if the author himself struggled to find the humanity within him. Jahanara, eldest sister of the family (Nathalie Armin) seemed too soft, too unaware of her abilities; in this case, I think some fault lie with the actress as well. And the entire plot line of Aurangzeb and his mistress Hira Bai (Anjana Vasan) seemed to be an unnecessary distraction, one of many that kept us away from the more fascinating relationship between the temperamental father and his two sons.

At the end, though, the combined effect of the powerful story, Zubin Varla’s entrancing performance, and the sense of utter relevance of this story to what we are experiencing today won me over. I can only wonder what Shahid Nadeem has been living through in his own country to have written this in 2010; I can only hope that those who see it are won over by Dara’s vision of an inclusive world. I, for one, left the theater feeling truly inspired, for seeing a great piece of theater and an inspiring vision of what the future might be if we could only have the wisdom to learn from the past. The James Plays spoke to a Britain united by its focus on the future of Scotland: but Dara speaks to everyone looking for a way to make our connected worlds, east and west, north and south live together in respect and harmony. And hurray for the National Theater for doing their bit both to promote this play, more widely serve the UK audience, and help in their own way to make Dara’s vision a reality.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, January 23, 2015. It runs through April 4th.)


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