Mini-review – The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theater

January 13, 2017 by

I knew little about this play before I went … I thought I’d seen some blurbles in the Evening Standard ages ago (back when it opened) but they had mostly faded into dim memory. Ah yes, the show about the guy who helps an actor dress up before shows … why, certainly I’ll go at the bargain price I was being offered a ticket for. I was actually unsure if I was going to see someone who was a costume designer or a wardrobe mistress or what, exactly, and just what the arc of the story was going to be. Frankly, it was the ideal situation for me, to walk into a theater having no idea what would happen on stage but feeling confident I was going to have one of those lovely experiences that I’ve come to expect thanks to living in the world capitol of English language theater.

Plot summary: it’s World War II, and bombing is going on. We’re in the dressing room of a famous actor (Ken Stott), who’s possibly not very good, and the man who helps him get ready to go on stage (Reece Shearsmith) is worried about whether or not “sir” is going to make the show tonight. He’s never missed a performance before, but something about all of the bombing seems to have unhinged “sir,” whom his dresser, Duncan, most recently saw wandering a market taking his clothes off and babbling. Duncan’s concerns seem well founded, and we sit with him as he nervously picks his way across Sir’s dressing room, talking with Sir’s partner (Harriet Thorpe) about Sir’s mental health, and generally setting us nicely for the big arrival of The Man Himself.

A lot of this play should be about the relationship of Sir and Duncan, but it’s actually more about the interaction of all of the personalities in a touring company, as we see when the long suffering (yet apparently devoted) stage manager appears – Duncan becomes all confidence, protecting Sir from the humiliation of a cancellation – and then again when a young, manipulative actress attempts to weasel her way into Sir’s dressing room (Normal threatens her with violence). Its all nicely balanced with the actual performance at the center of the play – a Noises Off romp through King Lear, with the backstage shenanigans front and center.

While seeing Duncan disintegrate in parallel with Sir may be what this show is supposed to be about, my enjoyment was most greatly because of the complex interleaving of this play with the text and characterization of Lear. To me, Lear is the the embodiment on many levels of an actual, inevitable mental and physical collapse of older actors, who may get decades on stage but will still eventually struggle to carry on doing what they love when their bodies and minds decide they can do no more. Semi-fictionally, this was wonderfully captured in My Perfect Mind, about an actor struggling to recuperate after a stroke had while in rehearsal for Lear: more meatily, however, this struggle for an actor to keep himself together was quite viscerally brought home two years ago when Brian Blessed had a physical collapse while playing the role, a trauma nearly immediately followed by a production where another actor failed to get his head wrapped around the hard work of dialogue memorization. Macbeth may be the unlucky play, but as a role that attracts older actors, Lear is now, to me, a role far more likely to see on stage tragedy. And seeing Sir struggle to remember his first line … indeed, to even remember which role he was about to play … was the truth of life as an actor being told on stage. It was heartbreakingly real, and a pleasure to watch.

It’s all for the best, then, that so much of this play ultimately has comedy at its heart; it makes for a brisk, exciting evening despite its 130 minute running time. It’s only on through this weekend, but I do recommend a watch; I for one will probalby try to find a way to see the BBC version with Sir Ian. Either way, it’s a treat.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 5th, 2017. It continues through January 14th.)

Mini-review – Kiki’s Delivery Service – Southwark Playhouse

December 27, 2016 by

I find it very cheering that a time of the year that is known for dull rehashes of the simplest kind of children’s stories is also somehow forming the coating in the petri dish from which many other works of theater are growing; not just the old favorites of Aladdin and Cinderella, but the expansion of the Panto form with Harry Potter (entering into the canon of proper fairy tales, although done as “Hairy Poppers” it’s obviously not meant for a kid’s audience). In addition at the Southwark Playhouse there is the introduction of an entirely new children’s book to the London stage. Well, truthfully, Kiki’s Delivery Service is hardly “entirely new” as I first saw the animated movie version over ten years ago: but it’s a new entry in the children’s stories genre of playwriting and very welcome after seeing two versions of Peter Pan in one month. Come on, people, there are other stories to be told here!

If you have not seen Studio Ghibli’s film, the story is as follows: Kiki is a young Japanese girl (living roughly in the here and now) who has been trained as a witch, and as she has just become old enough to be sent out into the world to find her own place to do witching. The training and the magic are pretty much not described (other than the fact there is less magic in the world than there used to be); what we are clear about is that Kiki rides a broom and has a cat familiar, Gigi, who talks to her. Why she must leave at 13 is also unclear; but Kiki is very eager to go out into the world. However, it’s hard for her to find a place to settle down; it has to be a place both friendly to witches and not currently having a witch. After some misadventures, she finds a place where she things she might be needed; and, for reasons that are unclear to me, decides to use her talents to create a delivery service.

The set was fairly simple – well, there was a projected backdrop which could have taken over the storytelling but mostly stayed in the backdrop, and various items were wheeled out (the cake shop piece was actually kind of spectacular) onto the floor – and the focus seemed to be on engaging the imagination rather than spelling everything out a la Miss Saigon’s flying helicopter. So we had a puppet cat, and Kiki actually being carried on her broom – but then flying with ropes later – and I found it fairly easy to let go of my own rootedness in quotidian reality and engage with a story about magic, and growing up, and both accepting responsibility and letting go. The actors did a great job of handling multiple roles – even the person who plays Gigi gets time off to be a hammy clockmaker – and, except for a scene where Gigi is shown as an animated projection on a clock, the company stuck to low tech solutions to depicting magic that I felt made the story hold together as “the real world plus magic.”

Retrospectively, I found myself wondering why Kiki would have to leave at such a young age, why she seemed to do so little magic, how it was that a world with trains could integrate with witches, and why we only find out at the end about time limits on familiars. It seemed like there was a lot of background material about this world that hadn’t been explained at all – but I doubt anyone watching it would think about it too much. Kiki’s Delivery Service was simple and sweet and provided a good opportunity to let the imagination fly – with or without a broomstick.

(This review is for a performance that took place December 14, 2017. I highly recommend it to people bored of traditional children’s fare – obviously other people agree as the performances, which end January 8th, are nearly sold out.)

Review – Saint Joan – Donmar Warehouse

December 20, 2016 by

These days it’s so hard to get a ticket for a show at the Donmar that I go for entire seasons without seeing a single thing. I was a bit sad, then, when I saw the promo posters for Saint Joan – a play I’d never heard of (and certainly not seen) by George Bernard Shaw, one of my favorite playwrights – and realized that unless the gods smiled very favorably upon me, there was little chance of me getting to go. And yet, there I was, the Friday before Christmas (well, close enough), rather stuffed full of panto, and there was …. not just a crummy standing seat … but a juicy front row center ticket that would be all mine if I’d just fork over the full price of forty quid. Well. That’s at the top end of what I’m willing to spend for everything, but you could hardly ask for anything better. In fact, I wound up feeling a bit like Santa had come by for an early visit. Religious fanaticism and being burned at the stake? Ho ho ho!

So … this is going to be slightly different review from my normal “I had no idea what was going to happen and this is what I experienced” write up … instead, I’m going to look at this play through the lens of someone who is a fan of Shaw, and who has seen both Shakespeare’s version of Joan of Arc as well as Theo Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Briefly, though, the play is given a very modern setting, as the meetings that would normally have taken place at castles or abbeys are instead held around boardroom tables by men in suits (although Joan, oddly enough, appears in Gothic garb). It’s a very effective touch, because what these people are is, really, decision makers, and I found it easy to swallow the ridiculous (miracles and religion) when framed in such an every day context.

Joan as a character needs to carry a lot. Is she an evil witch? The Brits think so (and may have truly believed so in Shakespeare’s time), but Shaw is too much of a realist to go down this path. Is she inspirational? That’s the core of Shaw’s portrayal, and Gemma Arterton embraces that, like a one-woman life coach for the entire French army, seen here coaxing the Dauphin and Archbishop as well as military men with a combination of emotion, religion, touch, humanity, and vision. She seems a dream leader … but Shaw pulls us back to the ground. In a masterful scene – typically Shaw because he’s basically speechifying at us – the English contingent reminds us about the dangers of both nationalism and religious fanaticism. Or, rather, I think Shaw is trying to remind us of where things are going to go historically … but what I heard was a voice from the past warning us that the route to fascism and religious intolerance were often hidden beneath the guise of popularity and “being inspiring.” So here’s Joan … telling people to die in the name of God and encouraging divides based on national origin. Suddenly with that filter it all seems a little more creepy.

Playing a crazed teenager who’s able to rouse a nation to war is doubtlessly not easy. Arterton has the look of someone who can see God, but I felt her sense of betrayal at the end wasn’t as convincing as it should have been (despite the nicely conjured tears). The key role of the Dauphin was also just too weak and wiggly to be convincing. Still, the power players in the rest of the cast – the religious court that sits in judgment in the second act, and the French courtiers – seem strong enough to carry the rest of the play. Overall, it was a good night, and from my front row center seat my interest never flagged. (The gentleman next to me dozed off, however, so caveat emptor.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 16, 2016. It continues through February 18th.)

Webcowgirl’s 2016 Adult Panto Roundup starring: The Family Fierce’s Beauty and the Beast

December 16, 2016 by

When I first moved here, I was positive the whole concept of adult panto was to thrown in a bunch of Benny Hill style jokes. Now there’s no doubt in my mind that dildos are far more prominent (OOH ER!) in “adult” pantos than they are in the normal ones (and that the jokes can be very cheap), it’s become much more noticeable that the things that I love in panto – specifically, topical, political humor – get a much stronger role in a show for grown ups. Yeah, sure, we still have dames and songs and singalongs and candy tosses (although not as many slop scenes as you might expect), but the genre really has become quite powerful. This year there are so many offerings I’m not even going to be able to take them all in (OOH ER!), but I’ll give you a quick recap of the three I’ve seen to date, then add in some notes about Prince Bendover in Boots and Hairy Poppers and the Deathly Swallows at the end of the week.

So: at the head of the class this year is The Family Fierce’s Beauty and the Beast, currently on stage at the Hen and Chickens. While I’ve seen Lolo Brow and Scarlett O’Hora perform burlesque before, I’d never seen the team Fierce on stage together. This ensemble is a super queer group of folk crossing most of the gender boundaries, so you’re getting quite a bit more than just dames and principal boys – what you’re getting is a crack squad of super stars, every one of whom is completely capable of holding the stage all on their lonesome (in fact O’Hora kept cracking me up when she was doing scene shifting duties – even in the dark, she failed to disappear into the background).

This year has been full of so much political tomfoolery that the field for humor was practically sprouting into the audience with laughs waiting to be harvested. We’ve got classic jokes given in context: a drunk housekeeper (Mrs. Potts) whose children are various cups; the raging baddie who was drawn straight from The Devil Wears Prada; but then we had a poke at the ridiculously hateful treatment of all immigrants (including students!) by the home office, and an extended jibe at the flip-floppery of British politicians that provides the backbone of the curse affecting this household. Then, just for giggles (with a very sharp point), there’s an extended laugh at cis white boy entitlement courtesy of “Ghastly” Gaston’s extended attempts to seduce Belle. With Gaston played to the sexist hilt by an (extremely) sexy woman with stuffed trousers, the scene was both sizzing with sarcasm and, er, well, genuine hotness (for me). Wow! I might have expected terrible gags, but I never expected as much wit and undermining of the dominant paradigm as this show dished out, plus rampaging dance numbers, great singing, and just all around awesomeness. THIS WAS A FIVE STAR BABY!

Next up in terms of good time was Prince Bendover in Boots at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (doors open at seven and show is an 8 PM start). The venue is intimate and designed to encourage drinking, and with a show like this you’ll feel very inspired to knock them back. The play is very much from the gay male side of the LGBTQ spectrum – women in the audience are ignored (except for various shout outs at the “lesbians,” which was every female) and references to women are very much of the gaping/fishy variety. Still, with a charming, sensual Dolly Purr-ton (Topsie Redfern) as our Puss (constantly trying to get Cumalot – Adam Gass – to “stroke” her), you couldn’t help but get pulled in to the on-stage fun. Puss, for once, is an American country belle, which makes for a lot more fun with the costuming – I mean, if you think Nashville glamour you’ve got the general idea – and also a very different kind of interaction between boy and cat than with the usual tom.
The whole cast has got piles of stage presence, but there must be a special call out for Faye Reeves as the all-purpose villainess who was constantly aware of the fourth wall and making rather daring choices to get her fellow thespians to break character (does she make up new magic mirror rhymes every night? – she must). The improv and contemporary references were fully front and center, as well as all sorts of adult jokes, but instead of just being dull and crude, the overall effect is lots of belly laughs and no dull moments. Win!

Now this is all quite odd because last year’s show, Charming Dick, has actually transferred this year to the Cockpit Theater, where I saw it the week before Boots. It’s just not nearly as good of a show, despite having a cast that seemed to be similarly talented. The jokes fell flat, the story (a witch is trying to close all of the gay bars – a bit too close to home, really) just didn’t have a lot of pizazz, and while I liked the old school Hollywood vibe of the song Sisters (very appropriate this time of the year), I just found the dildo gags and wanking scenes, I don’t know, not all that funny. And I do love a dirty joke. So this was the show that did the least for me, and I was just as sober at it as I was at the others.

Final review (for now): Hairy Poppins, the final outing of Access All Areas on the Battersea Barge. There were a lot of the old jokes but a sad lack of Fancy Chance, which meant I was not able to get my drag king vibe on. But still, with the half man/half female child (“to cut down on cast size”), references to hateful immigration laws (do I sense a trend), use of both classic Broadway tunes and Queen, and utter skewering of a family classic film (Hairy Poppins also keeps a bottle nearby), there was much to love in this show – and a special treat for me because I got to drool over Dusty Limits (albeit from a far back corner so no chance of ME getting called on stage). It all seemed a little bit slap dash, to be honest, but since the entire run sold out before it had opened and it closed December 13th, well, it hardly matters. I still had a good time and nobody stole MY drink off of the table.

There’s one last show in my bouquet of faded roses: Hairy Poppers and the Deathly Swallows which takes the entire panto world into a more updated story universe. Tickets are available online but almost no information about the show is otherwise available, and may I recommend you make sure safe search is on when you do a search for the show by title?

Anyway, Happy Panto Day and remember: It’s Behind You!

Review – Once in a Lifetime – Young Vic

December 11, 2016 by

Tell me what the movies Singing in the Rain and Prix de Beaute have in common? What, you haven’t heard of the second one? Well, this 1930 Louise Brooks film, made in two versions, is a real treat. So the secret is that both films are deeply immersed in the effect that the introduction of sound had to the evolution of the movies … and, if you look over your shoulder, to the effect that movies had on the support for live theater (as it’s sound cinema that killed vaudeville/music hall culture, putting Gypsy on the stage and making Norma Desmond mad). I am very interested in the change that The Jazz Singer brought to the world of cinema … and having the chance to see a play set during this fruitful era was one I could not let pass me by. And it was written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman … my hopes were high!

I’ll warn you that this show will go down best if you have a taste for the “screwball comedies” of 1930s Hollywood – with plots built around things like debutantes taking care of chimpanzees (or maybe cheetahs) while wearing an improbable series of expensive dresses. Yes, reality isn’t really a consideration, and the sooner you stop expecting it, the easier it will be for you to enjoy Once in a Lifetime.

The show opens in the hallway (?) of the tacky hotel the vaudeville troupe of May (Claudie Blakley), Jerry (Kevin Bishop) and George (John Marquez) are sharing. May has some bad news: they’re running out of money. It seems like this group has run out of steam. But suddenly Jerry bursts on the scene and announces he’s sold the act so they can run to Hollywood and, somehow, make a fast buck out of the rise of the talking picture. He’s just seen The Jazz Singer and he’s sure there’s money to be made in Hollywood. Give him credit: he has certainly seen the sea change moment. However, he has no idea WHAT to do, and it winds up being May who comes up with the idea of running an elocution school. While the trio are on a train to the promised land (Hollywood), May somehow manages to convince an influential friend of hers, film critic Helen Hobart (Lucy Cohu), to get behind their crazy idea, and suddenly, boom, it’s Hollywood at one of the most chaotic times ever, and our silly little play is off careening down an iced slalom with a complete disregard for logic.

Along the way, we get to see all of the people constantly thinking they have something that ought to be in pictures, tons of glamorous dresses (no cheetahs or chimpanzees, alas), an endlessly rotating stage, way to many Indian nuts, a complete simpleton running an expensive Hollywood production, and an endless paean to the idea that it’s not skill but luck that leads to success.

The acting is not as energizing as it could be (and neither is the script at first), but there are so many astoundingly comic characters for the rather bland leads to bounce off of that I began to feel like I was, actually, watching a 1930s movie, with the incredible depth of character actors they had to choose from. Throughout it all, though, I maintained a high degree of ironic separation from the unreality of what I was seeing on stage … only, underneath it all, it seemed the lesson that the monkeys are actually in charge at the zoo seemed as correct in real life (say, in banking, business, and politics) as it was in this play. Oh, it’s all so funny because it’s just all so true. Skill and talent mean nothing; the ability to spin a convincing line of bullshit and get powerful people on your side is everything. And how can that not make you laugh? This play may have its faults, but I found it an effervescent slice of topsy-turvy reality wholly suited to the end of this most topsy-turvy of years. Who needs panto when you’ve got Once in a Lifetime?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 3rd, 2016. It continues through January 14th.)

Review – Hedda Gabler – Ivo Van Hove at the National Theater

December 8, 2016 by

HELLO. THIS IS A REVIEW OF A PREVIEW. IF YOU GIVE A FLYING F, DON’T READ THIS AND DON’T COMPLAIN TO ME BECAUSE I DON’T CARE A BIT.

Hedda Gabler. Ivo Van Hove. In no way were either of these things unknown quantities to me when I walked into the National Theater with the most expensive tickets I’d bought to see a show there all year (£39 , thank God for preview pricing!).

Ibsen is one of my favorite playwrights, and Hedda Gabler is the first play I ever saw by him. It established his presence in my developing mental landscape as someone who built complex characters and brought them to a boil in front of me. Ibsen had me asking myself as I walked out of the theater (some 20 plus years ago), “What was Hedda’s childhood like?” and this, the creation of a creature so real I could believe she had a childhood, marked him for me as a truly outstanding playwright. Hedda has reasons for acting the way that she does: I just don’t know them all.

And then there’s director of the moment Ivo Van Hove. I’ve heard his praises sung to the high heavens by Oughttobeclowns but to date I’ve found his production emotionally dry. Stylish, but not touching. Now, for the price I paid for View from the Bridge it’s possible that it could never meet my expectations (given how I feel about the script): Song from Far Away managed to turn suicide into a nap fest. But this was Hedda. I was ready to be blown away.

The set is bare and realistic; the white walls of an unfinished apartment, a very noticeable gun cabinet; nearly nothing to sit on anywhere; loads of flowers in buckets; and a patio window with blinds that gave the wonderful opportunity for light play (open! shut! open! shut!). In addition, the piano gives Hedda something to plink at while she’s being bored; and those flowers allow for some meta decorating of the apartment when she goes on a rant. Hedda: was rich, now isn’t, expects the world to be at her feet. She’s not meant to be sympathetic, not really; but she should be vibrant, and as Ruth Wilson inhabits the character, oh, she is, she is, she is, and she simply can’t be blamed for the overuse of Joni Mitchell (full credit for finishing with Nina Simone’s “Wild is the Wind,” though). With her mane of red hair, I saw her as the incarnation of Rita Hayworth as Glinda; beautiful and deadly (and never more so than when she’s pointing a pistol at Row W Seats 14 and 15, please do not be alarmed).

But the rest of it. Van Hove has, with muscle, dragged this play out of the Victorian era and into the modern; but Hedda’s boredom seems as unrealistic in modern times as the constant delivery of letters that really should have been phone calls. Hedda needs a TV and the internet and most of her boredom could be taken care of. And, transposed into the modern, the obsession with scandal and the deliberate choice to ignore the fact that, if you loathe your husband of six months than maybe it’s time for a D-I-V-O-R-C-E (this song was NOT chosen). But it doesn’t even come up. Miserable people in miserable marriages must stay married; lonely bored people need to sit inside and be sad because nothing is happening there; outside of the realm of the Tabloid newspaper, there is no scandal on the level that Hedda fears will come her way if her role in the death of her beloved ex-suitor Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji) comes to light. We have options available to us today.

But … I almost forgot that. Hedda was a bullied but I believed in Brack’s (Rafe Spall) ability and enthusiasm about spending years tormenting her. And sure it was a bit silly to have him spit blood red soda all over her dress but it was a lovely way to express how violated she now was. And with her narrow view of the world – one room only, and no TV – I felt her trapped, and I felt her animal like desire to be free, to leap over all of the walls and limitations drawn around her by the world she was born into. And, yeah, it was really good. It’s an excellent play and this production doesn’t stint. Just forget about cell phones for a few hours (thank God all of the audience managed to, somehow!) and it’s just about perfect.

(This review is for a performance that took pace on December 7th, 2016. It continues through March 21st. I have to add that I loved Sinead Matthews as Mrs Elvsted, with her raspy voice and blowsy hair and beautifully designed dress made to really emphasize her character – it’s a lesser role but her desperation felt so very real that … wow. Fabulous.)

Review – Peter Pan – The Companies at The National Theater

December 5, 2016 by

There’s one thing you can expect from the National Theater: if they’re going to do a show, you can trust they’re going to do it right. No “empty space,” no actors all dressed in black because there’s no costume budget: you’re looking at the full meal deal. So when the Theatre Bloggers offered me a chance to go, I was eager. I’d seen a few versions of this book, most recently the side-splitting Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I jumped at the chance to see this show.

Notice, though that while the National tends to go for explicit realism, but can balance that out with “less” rather than “more.” Peter Pan, as performed by The Companies, is decidedly of the “less” aesthetic; rich costumes in front of a nearly empty stage; visible stagehands slipping up and down scaffolding to very visibly make actors “fly” countered with a fully drivable steampunk pirate boat; a crocodile that on one hand looks to be made of tin cans but then seems to leap ten feet into the hair. The air is that of something that is low tech and made up, but no undersupported production get as much as the wig budget must have been for this show. It’s faux poor.

The story itself is so rich that it’s hard to figure out how to approach it, because we have FLYING and PIRATES and FAIRIES. But the text is also troublesome, because it has, um, native Americans and, er, lots of children dying (if you’ve actually bothered to read it it’s not just Tinkerbell who dies, and let’s not mention the extremely bloody fates of the pirates). The script needs a bit of amendment, and with the cast members participating in the writing, we’ve wound up with a lot of free translations that help keep the story up to date with modern sensibilities. Our Captain is a woman, and Tink is played by a man; Tiger Lily’s tribe is gone and she’s morphed into some kind of modern day Princess Mononoke complete with wolves. And the sensitivities of the modern British audience are tenderly coddled by a near entire elimination of death from the script, except for the Tink’s heavily softened passing and of course the dramatic end of our Pirate Queen. I think we managed to frighten some audience members when Tink briefly stopped moving; fortunately Hook’s end was so dramatic it was hard to find it upsetting but rather an act of fantastic bravery. I’m sure anyone else who’s wound up inside a crocodile was far less sanguine (and more ensanguine) than Anna Francolini when she took her swan dive. Still, what an image for little girls to go home with: the wonderful, fierce, brave, New Rocks wearing Gothic pirate queen. I’d be asking for boat to play on in my back yard, no doubt about it.

Anna Francolini as Captain Hook

Anna Francolini as Captain Hook

But: the show. There are points to hit in the script, are there not? And the company seems to move between them with some sort of forward motion, but a lack of clear purpose; we have the bedroom, the parents, the woeful dog, Peter Pan, some business with a shadow, flying, Rasta Lost Boys, Wendy as Mummy, and so forth. And, because there are children in the audience, there are songs, none of which are particularly memorable. I mean, there are some really interesting points to be made, and some strong characters, and all of the World War One overhead lurking beneath the surface, and just really so much you can do …. but there are children to entertain but not overwhelm, and since this is devised there’s no actual author trying to make a grand vision come together but instead (perhaps) an attempt to recreate the great success of the Jane Eyre this same company did just last year. In that case, the formula worked … in this case, the sum was less that the whole of the parts, and I found myself, despite my love for this story, trying not to nod off before the interval. Alas.

(This review is of the opening night performance, which took place December 2nd, 2016. It continues until February 4.)

Review – Pride and Prejudice – Two Bits Classics at Jermyn Street Theater

December 4, 2016 by

The thought of two people acting all of Pride and Prejudice seems farcical at the outset, more so when I realized that it was to be a man and a woman. I mean, just look at Elizabeth Bennet’s family! She’s one of five daughters, and in her whole household there is only one man AND SIX WOMEN! And, frankly, Mr Darcy isn’t around nearly enough to justify an entire man in the cast – at least two thirds of the characters are female! But there I was, at Jermyn Street, waiting to see what had been created and, honestly, hoping for the best.

Fortunately, while Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood do stick to playing the two leads, Elizabeth and Darcy (and in the appropriate gender), the choice of genders for the various other parts is surprisingly more varied than I expected. Mr and Mrs Bennet are as expected – Underwood with a pipe and Tincey rather frequently twirling a hanky (and talking in a very comic accent) – but there is quite a bit of variety into the casting otherwise, rather sensibly as the various characters tend to appear in pairs, Darcy himself being frequently seen with Mr Bingley, and the youngest Bennet sisters being somewhat attached at the hip. There is no doubt that Mr Underwood is extraordinarily flexible with his portrayal of the female roles. And, to my surprise, so is Ms Tincey as a man (whipping aside her skirt to show trousers). You cannot help but be somewhat astounded at what a rich job they have done at making these many characters come to life, with only the tiny bit of waffling (the middle sister who only ever gets to be a music stand; an occasional chair that is supposed to be occupied).

Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey - photo courtesy Carrie Johnson

Jane Bennet (left) and Caroline Bingley (with fan) – Nick Underwood and Joannah Tincey – photo courtesy Carrie Johnson


So we’ve established that there’s much of a to-do with the actors popping on hats, picking up pipes, or carefully arranging a sash to give a military air. Despite this, the production as a whole has a feeling of carefully controlled simplicity, with only picture rails, a half-window, some boxes and a fireplace serving to recreate one after another interior scene (of people in widely varying circumstances) and, indeed, even the outdoors (as Elizabeth takes her many walks). All of the richness is provided by the glorious words of Jane Austen and the highly memorable characters she created, who quickly became who I saw on stage as the scene required – the brash and stupid Lydia, grasping and shallow Mrs Bennet, formal and gentle Jane. What an accomplishment! And what a very good evening at the theater – it was a longish show but time positively raced by. Like the works of Jane Austen, this feels like a play one could see again and again – a classic performed with bravura and so, so much comedy. It’s delicious counter-programming for the festive season as well. Well done, all!

(This review is for the opening night performance which took place on Thursday, December 1st. It continues through Decmeber 21st.)

Mini-review – Nice Fish – Harold Pinter Theater

November 29, 2016 by

Obviously with Mark Rylance being such a genius and all, it’s “miss it at your peril” whenever he decides to hit the stage again. So I bought super cheap tickets for Nice Fish knowing nothing about it other than MARK RYLANCE WOO and then was overjoyed to discover I’d manage to bag seats for a 90 minute show. Wahoo! And it got better because we were magically upgraded to a BOX SEAT. Now, mind you, this meant that a fifth of the stage was invisible, and there were actually some bizarre things going on on the edge of the stage (puppets, a man standing around), but the LEGROOM and the TABLE. If only we’d had something to drink. Alas.

So Nice Fish is ostensibly about two men who are ice fishing in Minnesota. It is also about pretty much anything BUT ice fishing. There is certainly a lot of talking, and a lot of being silly, and it seems like it might have some point to it. It could have been about the nature of friendship … it could have been about the nature of Americans (you’ll certainly get some insights, as there’s no doubt in my mind that Ron (Mark Rylance) and Eric (Jim Lichtscheidl) are profoundly American in ways that I found oddly relaxing) … but a lot of the big moments that we’re moved between, on a road peppered with conversations about baloney sandwiches, Moby Dick, and the relative merit of different kinds of vitamins … is conversations about the nature of life. Yep. we are watching an absurdist existentialist drama, somewhere between Happy Days (you know, the woman buried below her neck in sand) and Tree, but with none of the “yeah it’s all just waiting for death” of Albee and a lot more of the “it’s actually about the journey, and maybe having a little bit of a laugh” of the Kitson piece.

In the end, this play doesn’t choose to hit you in the head with some big existentialist revelation (even though it does have a piscis ex machina in the final scene), but the semblance of the experience of endurance ice fishing combined with the moments of shimmering metaphors – like a brown trout flashing in a beam of sunshine – is actually rather fulfilling. You sit down, you sit back, you take a moment (or ninety) just to have experiences. It’s actually almost a mini-lesson in how to live life. And in that, the play was successful – not quite genius but still a perfect little lesson in zen.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 28, 2016. It continues through February 11th, 2017.)

Review – Akram Khan’s Giselle – English National Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

November 16, 2016 by

There is nothing like a sold out show to get me into a complete ticket buying frenzy. I’d kind of ignored the emails English National Ballet had been sending me about their new version of Giselle: what can I say, I was out of work for two months and tickets to Sadlers Wells were not on the list of things to buy with my limited funds. (This despite the fact that their ticket pricing structure is extremely kind especially to the unemployed.) And, well, ENB just isn’t that exciting to me in general. But it got closer to the time and I thought, hey, Giselle, that’s my favorite ballet, why don’t I make the attempt? And then GASP it was sold out. And so for three weeks I set poised with my computer browser set to the Sadler’s ticket buying page. Even after it was announced that it would be returning in 2017, I still wanted to go NOW, when it was all fresh and hot and juicy, and not wait for a whole ‘nother year. Yummy fresh ballet! I had quite a balancing act to pull off though because I had to fit in a time to see the new Wayne MacGregor at the Royal Ballet as well … so there I was yesterday STANDING IN LINE at Sadler’s at 6:45 hoping some person would fail to show up for their date and said date would hand over their ticket in eager anticipation of getting a little bit of money back (as Sadler’s will refund tickets if they are sold on – once again proving how wonderful they are). And POW I finally got one, back of the stalls for £38.

And, wow, what an utterly powerful and deeply creepy version of Giselle this was. Are you familiar with the normal plot? Prince (Albrecht) goes to a random (possibly eastern European) small town, woos innocent young girl (Giselle – Tamara Rojo) with a heart condition, makes her local beau Hilarion jealous, then gets in a bit of a situation as his family (the local king and queen or duke and duchess) show up, while hunting, along with his fiancee. Giselle is initially enchanted by the party of richies, especially the queen (and her clothing), and does a little dance for them to entertain them (because she’s just a lowly peasant after all), for which she receives a necklace in thanks. But then Hilarion blows Albrecht’s cover, forcing Albrecht to publicly show Giselle that his loyalties are actually with the nobility and his love is pledged to another (Bathilde). This causes Giselle to go mad; she does a dance and then dies of a heart attack (or stabs herself depending on the versions). Albrecht is very sad; so sad that in the next scene we see him at Giselle’s grave. She is buried in unconsecrated ground, and SURPRISE she has been recruited to join a band of evil fairies, the “Wilis,” who hunt down young men and kill them. (Wilis are the spirits of girls who died of broken hearts.) Hilarion is also sad and goes to Giselle’s grave only SURPRISE he gets captured by the Wilis and is forced to dance to his death. The queen of the Wilis then tries to get Giselle to join in killing Albrecht, which she should do as he’s directly responsible for her being dead, but unfortunately Giselle is as stupid in death as in life and instead saves Albrecht, thus losing her chance to live forever as a Wili. It’s hard to decide if this is a sad or happy ending but overall it’s a tremendously satisfying story.

SO: we have a NEW version of the ballet, which has taken some characters from the original and about five minutes of the music and dropped it into the tremendously powerful framework of this highly emotive production. I didn’t buy a program, so I’ll tell you what I thought was going on; some key moments were changed (or excised), so we are presented a much more original story that I felt was influenced both by modern fantasy drama (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones) with a good solid sploosh of Japanese horror sloshed on top. Maybe the intent of the choreographer was NOT to change things in the ways I saw; but it was still a strong story which held the following elements intact: a love triangle, an independent heroine who is betrayed by her love, and death dealing fairies. The rest of it, well, to say it “diverged” was fair; but like good Shakespeare, a good ballet and its characters transcends one choreographer’s interpretation.

In a village somewhere, villagers, men and women, are dancing in front of a looming wall. The dancers’ moment is tribal rather than classical; the men spin and leap (and do backflips). Everything seems to have an air of gloom. These people are poor, and they seemed trapped somehow. One woman stands out amongst them, in part because two men are fighting over her affection. One seems devoted and protective; the other, arrogant.

Out of nowhere a ram’s horn sounds. The effect is eerie, otherworldly: the dancing stop. It is the call of the Wild Hunt. Suddenly, the wall behind the villagers begins to tilt and light flows from underneath it. A crack is forming between the worlds, and the immortal members of the Court of the Fae have chosen to walk out into the land of mortals. We see them, in their elaborate gowns, head dresses, damasks, and lace, silhouetted behind, and yet above, the shabby villagers. They are clearly above their petty concerns. One woman in the group stands out, in her body conscious top more Cretan goddess than human nobility; Giselle is fascinated by her clothing but refuses the glove the woman drops at her feet. Then one of her lovers returns … seemingly Albrecht, the member of the tribe of priveleged people, for he goes around attempting to make all of the villagers bow to the strange creatures. Giselle refuses, and the gentler man rushes to her defence, triggering a battle with Albrecht which Giselle attempts to break up. In the end Albrecht loses, and is stolen away by Bathilde, who seems to have enchanted him. His fate looks to be about as kind as that as the male of the Black Widow spiders when caught by a female member of their species. The Fae depart with their prey, and with Albrecht.

In the next scene, a long haired, blonde supernatural straight out of KwaiDan appears, a veil covering her face and a long slim stick in her hands. She is clearly Myrtha, queen of the Wilis. She looks to want to be taking Giselle to be one of her minions. But then Albrecht appears, and in a violent rage chokes Giselle to death. This prompts the rest of the evil fairies to come out of the darkness with their sticks and herd him into a small circle; then, finally, they kill him, hoisting him overhead like a village sacrifice. It is primal and frightening.

And, as it is the nature of this story, the kind and loving boyfriend shows up. Giselle loves him but as she is a ghost now he doesn’t seem to be able to touch her any more; still, she swoons in his presence. And when Myrtha give the order to kill, she refuses, somehow managing to protect him from the lesser fairies; eventually, it becomes a battle of the wills between Murtha and Giselle, and Giselle wins, driving Myrtha off of her toes, leaving her flat footed. Doing this, Giselle has given up her chance to live forever, but she has kept her ability to make choices about her own actions intact. She is incredibly powerful. As the act ends, we shiver at the naked power she has displayed; to stand against the supernatural at any cost, even beyond death. And with that, she is gone.

Now, I’ve probably got some things wrong because the diversion from the original story seems unlikely to have happened in the way I saw it … Giselle dies after Myrtha shows up? Albrecht is her true love? … but this is how it read to me. And I liked it. The dancing was not very balletic but the Wilis used their toes well to express their otherworldliness and the men were given the opportunity to really show off (although not as much as in a traditional Giselle where the two guys have to “dance to the death” for Myrtha). Frankly I found this an incredibly compelling tale of the supernatural and I enjoyed it a lot. Thank goodness it’s coming back – it deserves to be seen again and again.

(This review is for the opening night performance at Sadler’s Wells, which took place on Tuesday, November 14, 2016. It continues through Saturday night but returns in 2017.)