Review – Alice in Wonderland – Opera Holland Park

July 23, 2015 by

If I’m honest, while I enjoy Alice in Wonderland, the thought of an opera made for children just sent shivers NOT of anticipation down my spine. How bad was it going to be? What would it take to keep children interested? And how could meeting that criterion possibly results in something that wouldn’t bore me? I’m not really an opera buff at the best of times, and the thought of seeing one of my favorite works of literature reduced to something cutesy and/or banal depressed me beyond words. But, you know, hope springs eternal, and thus I found myself wandering around Holland Park last Saturday, clutching my watch as I dashed down the pathways in the woods going, “I’m late! I’m late” and feeling just too ironic for words.

As it turns out, my fears were entirely unfounded; despite some sound quality issues that any outdoor performance (that moved to about five different areas) would have and a toddler who tried to stage rush the tea party, Will Todd’s Alice in Wonderland combined both excellent, lyrically witty music with some barbed social satire that made sure all members of the audience were entertained and engaged. The music was often of the overly modern sort I find not my style, yet I laughed out loud at the song, “Off With Their Heads,” made extra rich by a panto-dame style Queen of Hearts (Robert Burt). wI was surprised and pleased to see the Cheshire Cat (Magid el Bushra) was cast as a countertenor, meaning I could just sit and enjoy the luscious pleasure of his voice; like all of the side characters, he was richly defined, a trait that extended even to the comic Drink Me bottle (Maud Millar). I found myself caught up in the energy and fun of this show despite my initial misgivings, and I’m glad it was restaged and even more so to hear that it’s transferring to the Linbury in the fall; this is a fun miniature opera full of charm that makes for a perfect hour plus on any sunny summer day you might care to spend at the bottom of a rabbit hole cultivating cabbages and potential young opera fans, who I’m sure will be softened up properly by this show for fuller forays in the future.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, July 18th, 2015. It continues through August 1st.)

Review – The Motherfucker with the Hat – National Theater

July 20, 2015 by

Although this play did little to attract me at the start – something American with a swear word in the title – I was convinced to make the effort to see it by Fiona Mountford’s glowing review, at the level of exuberance that causes me to drop the paper, skip the review, and just get directly online to book a ticket. It helped that it was 1:45 with no interval, which means to me that if it were actually bad or irritating, well, it would all be over quite soon with a chance of somehow salvaging my night (or in this case, my afternoon – the matinee was over in plenty of time to see a show that evening).

The plot of this play is as follows: there is a man not long out of prison, who has a girlfriend he suspects of infidelity (with the man with the hat). They’re both poor and Puerto Rican, and grew up together in the crappy New York neighborhood the pay is set. Jackie (Ricardo Chavira) is trying to clean up his act and stay out of prison – find a job and stick to the AA program, that kind of thing – while Veronica (Flor de Liz Perez), well, clearly has some substance abuse issues (we watch her snorting lines in the first scene) and might have some questionable ways of funding that hobby. Or maybe she makes her money hairdressing; I couldn’t be sure. And it didn’t help that Boyfriend’s AA counselor Ralph (Alec Newman) was busy advising him (and us) that Girlfriend was an unreliable skank who was a problem in Boyfriend’s life: gosh, yeah, maybe the drugs do cloud your judgment. Whatever her story is, though, Boyfriend is positive that Girlfriend has not been faithful (his evidence seems good), and he’s furious, and if he can’t get his temper under control, it’s back behind bars for him.

While this play is ultimately a bit slim (it doesn’t really have enough to justify an interval, so it’s well chosen to run it straight through), there’s no avoiding the powerful reality of the characters that populate it. Jackie’s dilemma hurts. We can feel the power of his affection, but also the tides of the other emotions sweeping through him – the conflict between keeping control and living a life in which he can have respect for himself. I was convinced that not going for violence was going to permanently break him, yet I was invested in him enough that I also desperately wanted him to be able to avoid breaking his terms of probation. Then there was his girlfriend: fiery-hot tempered, clearly impulsive, sexy as hell, and so obviously madly in love with him that seeing them split up was killing me. Jackie’s character was more clearly drawn for us by the presence of his extremely odd cousin, Julio (Yul Vasquez), whose description of their life together as children was obviously necessary backstory but also created the crucial element that made us, the audience, root for Jackie so hard, Julio could have just been throwing pom poms into the audience. The collective of the three of them smashed apart the shallow caricatures of Italian immigrants peopling Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge: in some ways, these people were fighting many of the same problems (money/loyalty/fidelity) but with a richness that made them so much more than wax figurines populating a morality tale.

The morality issues are pretty strong in this play, and it’s a very modern morality that washes over the underpinning questions of Veronica’s reliability: it’s the morality of AA, telling people to take it one day at a time, telling them to turn to God for support, telling them to let things go …. and maybe telling them that, since they need to forgive themselves and learn how to feel good about themselves, that maybe they don’t have to try to act to make a better future for themselves or others. It’s a little hard to describe but simultaneously very new-agey and completely Machiavellian. I was shocked at how much ugliness Stephen Adly Gurgis managed to find in his few characters, all seeking to lead their lives according to precepts that they firmly believed in; and ultimately, the only one I felt I could stand up for was the guy society saw fit to put in jail. That gave me more to wonder about at the end of the play than almost anything else. It was, really, a good show that well rewarded the 100 minutes I invested in it.

(This review is for a performance that took place June 25th, 2015. It runs through August 20th.)

Review – Styx – RIFT at A Secret Location Near Tottenham Hale

July 15, 2015 by

To start any review of this show, I must actually start with a review of the location, because, while RIFT have been specializing in site specific performances for some time, it looks like they’re going to be settling down in this place. The gates of hell are pleasant indeed; wooden walkways and benches with a water feature in the middle and flowers dripping over the edges; a second story visiting-and-drinking area overlooking the entire space; and a million pleasant spots to stop and wait. The bar has a series of Stygian-inspired drinks, the most unmissable of which was the pomegranate mojito – holy shades of Persephone! I felt pretty confident that even if I ate the fruit garnish I’d be allowed to leave afterwards so I did in. Yum! It was an absolutely perfect place to spend a lovely summer day, although I wonder how it will hold up in the rain … still, it’s not where my head was that day. I couldn’t have felt further away from any sort of dark thoughts. Bring on the party!

At last, though, I was taken from my seats in Hell’s Little Waiting Room and me and my companion were escorted into the building, being carefully fitted with headphones and a tiny pink MP3 device so that by the time we made it inside, we were confirmed as fully wired for sound. And then our journey to the Styx began, or, rather, our journey through this narrative. Our headphones played a story about at attempt to deal with an urn that should have been full of ashes; I, the interlocutor, was attempting to deal with a death both externally (through the urn) and internally. This lead to a journey across London: I went to a funeral parlor, a wood (possibly Hampstead Heath), a cafe, and eventually an underground platform. But this, in some ways, is where the voice in my head told me I was supposed to be going; I was so overwhelmed with the visual stimuli that I’m afraid I nearly entirely lost the thread of the narration and kind of went into a dream state where the things I was seeing connected in their own way: the voice in my head was like the words you hear people speak in a dream, where the words are completely nonsensical and the meaning comes through later, thanks to the miracle of internal logic.

So instead of carrying on by telling you what maybe I was supposed to have going on, I’m going to tell you about what I experienced and how my dream logic brain put things together (with some attempt at not revealing all): I was on a journey of the parallel world of death and the dead that exists alongside the London we see every day. The port of entry might be a funeral parlor; the characters I met were speaking words and going through emotions that I thought made sense but were more roles they were playing as functionaries in this parallel world. Every park is also a graveyard; every public space is peopled by the living (barely), the dead (mostly) and the soon to be dead, who glow with the energy of their impending transformation. Every room, every tube platform is a place full of more beings who used to exist then those who exist now; we attempt to hold on to those alive and those dead and yet wind up losing both. Eventually we lose ourselves. Eventually everything is gone, except the two pennies we thrust in our pocket before we started the journey and the pomegranate seeds we still hold, thoughtfully, in our mouth – a last connection with the world of the sun and the living we like to pretend is the only reality, but is in fact the true illusion.

(This review is for a performance that took place the night of July 7th, 2015. It continues through August 1; returns may be available at the door.)

Review – Bromance – Barely Methodical Troupe at Udderbelly

July 2, 2015 by

Summer is rolling on, and the circus acts keep rolling into the Southbank. With two venues to fill – the Spiegeltent (for the “Wunderground”) and the Udderbelly (the giant purple cow) – that means there is a lot happening and it’s a bit hard to keep track. The latest arrival is the Barely Methodical Troupe, a group of three men, performing their one hour act “Bromance.” With a title like that, I was feeling quite sensitized to the “man on man” possibility it all presented – and it was a little edgy for me to watch them play with each other in a way much more familiar than you usually see in physical performance groups. They tickled each other, they tweaked nipples, they sniffed each other’s armpits. I was cringing a bit – what the hell was going on? Was this actually just man on man interaction?

Interestingly, throughout the performance, although there was physical stuff going on, what it felt like you were watching was the evolution of friendships/relationships. The guys seemed to be fighting to be popular with each other (and to a lesser extent, with the audience), and kept up a level of “who’s in/who’s out” that I, with my outsider childhood, found painful to watch. At the same time they were also doing lots of great tumbling, as well as balancing, and (finally) some very odd stuff with a giant hula hoop that was thoroughly mesmerizing; much of it was done to music which had lyrics that made what was going on rather poignant.

Altogether, it was less of an “Op La!” circus of stunts and more of an hour of emotional journey-ing along with the guys as they did their tricks and interacted; somehow managing to balance the thin line between performers and actual people with feelings. It may have all still have come out of the same can of actor-ing, but, still, I found it a most engaging hour of emotional acrobatics.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 30th, 2015. It continues through July 19th.)

Review – Rent Boy the Musical – Above the Stag

July 1, 2015 by

Much as space ships and dinosaurs emerge in the cinemas in the summer, the sleazy back-alley Fringe is yielding up brazenly trashy crowd pleasers of its own as the weather heats up. It’s not the time for Ibsen: it’s time for Rent Boy: The Musical. Yes, the Above the Stag Theater has arranged the perfect entertainment for sultry summer nights, and about the only reason I could imagine anyone getting motivated to get off of a riverside patio (with iced beverages) and into a theater: a show with lots of sexy men in it being silly and hopefully not wearing a lot of clothes (at times, at least).

Rent Boy‘s premise is that we’re at the Hookie awards, where the MC (Frank Loman) is announcing who has won prizes for being the best in the escort industry. The award are somewhat as you might have expected (best SM experience, best newcomer), but generally speaking are riding the comic edge – the tipoff being that “pro” names include such winners as Don K Dick (yes, the humor is bawdy). But the real point of the awards is to give us a chance to meet various escort types – the “I’m really straight” boy, the horny soldier, et cetera – as well as to introduce us to some scenarios associated with working in the sex industry – the all-gigolo houseshare (and yes there are side benefits that go beyond living with people who “understand”), the difficulty in separating your emotional and your sexual life. The people and the situations are illustrated with a pile of generally not too serious songs exploring these themes (“The Boyfriend Thing” and personal favorite “That’ll Be A Little Bit More” doing exactly what it says on the tin), all of which are catch and fun and if there’s anything to worry about in this profession, well, it does not come up in this show. Other than getting old, of course.

The talent is generally, shall we say, up for it in varying degrees (as showcased wonderfully in the final song, “Who Invented the Jockstrap,” which should win its own prize for the smallest and sparkliest costumes on a male cast), although there were some sound balance qualities between the singing and the music, which at times overpowered the cast (especially a problem for solos). But really, this show is not meant to be a deeply (snicker) rearched tome on the rise and fall of the rent boy; it’s a fantasy fun time full of bad puns and triple entendres. I found it impossible not to enjoy myself, especially when Mr Don K (Henry Collie) came up and gave me a smooch at the end of the show. Even a girl like me likes to live the dream, and Rent Boy had me imagining bevies of boys floating me along on their shoulders …. aah! And all that just for the cost of ticket – who could say no?

(This show is for the opening night performance, which took place on Friday, June 26, 2015. It has already been extended through to August 2nd.)

Review – Rules for Living – National Theater

June 27, 2015 by

I am mystified by the English concept of the embarrassment comedy, a la Abigail’s Party. To me there is little humor to be found in people spending time together being immensely uncomfortable. However, I do not come from a country where embarrassment is glorified as part of the national identity; thinking on it, Americans’ lack of embarrassment is probably one of the little things that makes them so unpopular (or, indeed, objects of comedy) in the UK.

Yet, here is Rules for Living, a new play substantially built around the same concept as Abigail’s Party – a family (and a stranger) spent an extraordinarily uncomfortable time together preparing for and then having a party, and we laugh and cringe as they make asses of themselves – only this time it was funny. Sam Holcroft has a strong idea of what it is that makes families tick, what the resentments are they build up over the years, how they learn to accept pathological behavior (of various sorts) as normal – and he knows we’ve also had our own experiences with this. So this time, instead of having us wait until the great reveal to discover the source of people’s various miseries, we’re given “the scores on the doors,” or in this case on the wall: a physical display on the set of what it is that makes these people tick. The playwright has told us, but this puts us into a privileged position: we know what the characters do and don’t allow themselves to do, but the other characters do not. So we’re now able to tell when a certain character is lying, when another wants to be confrontational and can’t, and so on. For most of the first act, this means we laugh as we see the characters’ own constraints limit them; it’s almost a bit like a sit com in that the chuckles come so fast and uniformly, and from identifiable triggers on stage.

Things took what to me felt like a darker turn in the second act, as family secrets began to come out, the first one being the biggest (and the one having the most immediate impact): the father/grandfather, whose arrival everyone has been preparing for, suddenly appears on stage and we discovered he has had a [SPOILER ALERT] horrifying health change that his wife has been hiding from the rest of the family. Holcroft tries to weave this truly devastating event back into a comic narrative quite deftly, by raising the stakes of people’s misbehavior (drinking and pill popping all happen but are, somehow, laughable); horrible backstory comes out that will probably result in family ties being undone; and yet we don’t cringe, but enjoy watching this family fall apart fantastically. I mean, there’s a food fight, and the characters are actually awarded points (on the score board) for being terrible to each other and acting like children.

But what I found just utterly amazing about this is the practically swept aside story of dealing with a person who’s lost the ability to talk and has lost their memory. John Rogan is devastating as the impaired patriarch; you can see he’s thinking behind that partially immobilized face, and I believed that I understood what he was saying when he was talking to his wife and his sons. What frustrated me particularly is how quickly the sons gave up on trying to understand him; admittedly, for comic pacing, if a lot of that had happened, we would have gone way off course – but I know it’s possible and I hated that they weren’t trying more. And then there’s a situation of inappropriate sexual behavior which I have NEVER seen on stage and which I also wish could have been dealt with in more depth rather than being used as a springboard for more comedy. But that’s me.

And you know what? It was still a really good show, a solid new comedy with some good bones to support it; a bit shallow in some of the characterization (Maggie Service got a bum deal with Carrie), but still a good ride and absolutely worth the 15 quid I paid for my slightly restricted view seat. The comedy was fluffy, but the issues driving it were rock solid; and I was in the mood for a good laugh. With luck it’ll get a transfer and an opportunity for more people to enjoy it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, June 12, 2015. It continues through July 8th.)

Review – Krapp’s Last Tape – Robert Wilson at Barbican Theater

June 19, 2015 by

Imagine the most perfect set ever for a show – one that looks exactly like the pen-and-wash designs, the edges sharp and perfect, the lighting crisply just-so on exactly every spot it needs to be.

Imagine a performance that mirrors this, each movement rigidly controlled, the actor’s facial expressions produced as if from the one perfect take of a cinematic thirty. His clothes utterly match the set, his face a series of whites, blacks and grays, his socks the one spot of color on all of the set (aside from the incongruous appearance of a banana).

We are meant to be watching a clown, a Chaplin, the stripped down bones of the art of drama all squeezed out for the perfection of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a classic deserving of the finest of treatment, the audience there to worship together at this church.

In front of me, lovers necked through the extremely long (and aurally painful) unspoken moments, and at the end a booer seemed like Judas taking his fistful of silver coins; as if saying, “That is not it, at all.” He was practically strung up from a tree for his heresy.


At home, I read a Facebook post from a friend, saying, ” ‘Thank you for seeing me,’ mumbled the elderly street clown as I took his hand to thank him for making me laugh,” and I thought, that was how that play should have made me felt. Life ends in death and we all have regrets. I do not need to go to the church of Beckett, led by the high priest Wilson, to have that realization. Instead, I should seek laughter and express gratitude for those who do make our limited time joyful. I saw something really beautiful and stripped of all ability to create any sense of shared humanity tonight. Tomorrow, I think I’ll step away from perfection and prayer and go for some sweat and dirt at the circus.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 19th, 2015, and marks my official last Beckett play ever. Unlike Krapp, I believe in learning from my mistakes.)

Review – Face the Music – All Star Productions at Old Rose and Crown

June 17, 2015 by

I wear my heart on my sleeve, and if we’re talking musical theater, that heart clearly reads “GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME MUSIC.” I like seeing shows that leave me walking out the door singing a (newly learned) melody, and it’s all the better if there’s a tap dance number (or three) to lift my spirits during the show. Hey, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy Sondheim, but so much music these days is just so introspective and, I don’t know, fashionably boring – what ever happened to writing songs with a hook?

This was a talent Mr Irving Berlin, premiere 20th century American tunesmith, had in spades. So when I read that a show he had written with Moss Hart was going to be making its UK debut at the Rose and Crown, well, I just about slapped a hat on my head and ran out the door so fast there was a little cartoon dust devil left swirling behind me in the hallway. It absolutely helped that it was being produced by All Star Productions, whose How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, One Touch of Venus, and Flora the Red Menace had shown such a skill at squeezing out the core joy and musicality at the heart of the shows (while operating on a tight budget, still not stinting on talent). A trip to Walthamstow has never been so appealing – and they are actually easier to get to than the Gatehouse. Go go Face the Music!

In every way, this show exceeded my expectations. I just went for the music, but the story was slap-me scintillating, positively prosecco-esque in its perfectly targeted wit. This, my friends, is a play that makes fun of making plays, a topic I find hilarious, and it had me guffawing and hee-hawing like a ticklish donkey being ridden by a contortionist. Everyone was hamming it up so much that it was impossible not to believe in them as, well, the actors they were playing (favorite comedians were the effervescent Laurel Dougall as Mrs Myrtle Meshbesher and gigglicious Samuel Haughton as producer Hal Reisman), and to make it even better the full investment was done in lively choreography that kept your eyes riveted to the stage (Sally Brooks). A nice bonus was chorine/dancer Joanne Clifton, a bright star dropped surprisingly into this production to all of our benefit (gorgeous movement and just smashing in all of her costumes – no wonder the cops couldn’t stay away from her!).

The fantastic songs kept rolling in, the jokes slammed us harder and faster, and the ridiculous events of the play layered on each other like a rainbow cake, every slice hysterical. I’d sit around and quote the play to demonstrate how funny it was, but why make you miss out on a single laugh? Let’s just say … I loved this show and I’m going back. There’s no Lost Musicals this season, but there’s a Found Musical just up the road in Walthamstow, and if you can’t afford to go to Gypsy more than once, you can find just as much joy and fun at the Rose and Crown at a much better price.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on June 11, 2015. It continues through July 3rd.)

Review – Scotch & Soda – Company 2 at Spiegeltent, Udderbelly, Southbank

June 13, 2015 by

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a theater critic in possession of an excess of Beckett, must be in want of a night at the circus. And here is the Southbank Center, with not one but two stages upon which to view circus acts, all in a vibe of love and free flowing Pimms, and suddenly any sense of existential dread has disappeared in a puff of shimmering fizz floating over the Thames. Ooh, who is it this time? Scotch and Soda, a wonderful combination of steampunk and hill billy, with thumping stand up bass and tubas providing a brilliant illumination for the aerial, balance and gymnastics going on in front of us.

The circus performers had created characters rather than just being, well, there on stage; a sassy, brassy blonde (Chelsea McGuffin); the more ethereal rope artist Kate Munts; and the somewhat terrifying and occasionally naked Mosez (a one man shop for undoing the hipsters beard trend). They concocted little narratives, like two men competing to see who could balance on a higher box; a series of balancing acts taking place on a bicycle (really, it plays out like a story when you watch it): all set to the wonderful music of the Crusty Suitcase Band. My favorite of all was a piece that McGuffin did in a collapsible cage with two parakeets, who clearly loved her to bits; it was beautiful, delicate and heartbreaking, an act filled to overflowing with trust yet still heavily overlaid with the sense of the ephemeral condition of our existence. She is in a cage and they are in a cage and yet we yearn to be free – while also yearning for safety, which keeps us in the cage. It was like holding a soap bubble in your hand.

Of course, the overall tone of the show was jolly, and (as usual) it’s hard to capture a circus in words; but if you’re looking for a positive, cheery night out with some good tunes to boot, you could hardly do better than spend your evening in the shiny Spiegeltent watching Scotch and Soda do their stuff.

(This review was for the press night, which took place on Thursday, June 4th, 2015. Performances continue through August 2nd but do check the schedule as the occasionally take a day, or even a week, off.)

Review – This Is How We Die – Christopher Brett Bailey at Battersea Arts Center

June 9, 2015 by

Amidst the glowing reviews (‘Mesmerising’ – The Guardian; ‘Leaves you speechless’ – The Times), I’d like to add one that will NOT be on the BAC’s website: “70 minutes of pure wank.” That’s an excerpt from my longer review, in which I shouted over the phone at my husband: “It left me feeling gross and sticky and wanting to stab him to death with a plastic fork to make it stop.” He said he thought I wouldn’t like it and I didn’t listen but at least he didn’t rub it in.

Sometimes one man shows tell stories. Sometimes they’re comedy. Sometimes it’s just spoken word. And sometimes it’s someone who’s fallen in love with the sound of his own voice and uses it as a weapon to assault the audience. Can you escape? Barely. Is it interesting? Never. I found myself unable to distinguish the words as they ran together, avoiding narrative, punctuated by the pops of his fricatives against the microphone (“Is that a microphone in your pocket?” “No, it’s a joke I’m going to repeat several times despite the fact that it wasn’t funny the first time.” “Oh, wait, is the joke on me?” “Yes.”) Sometimes the words briefly coalesced into images then fluttered away, either on the bumper of a car that crashed into his story or on a priest’s head zipping madly into the sky. To add insult to injury, this overly long evening ends, first with a blast of light to the eyeballs (such a sixth form theater school stunt) then with a blast of sonic oppression which only alleviates by changing our pain from merely mental to aural as well. AT LEAST THEY WEREN’T SCREAMING THE WORD JISM OVER AND OVER AGAIN BUT THEY MIGHT HAVE WELL BEEN. SOMEONE HAND ME A WET WIPE AND PASS ME THE SPORK, I”M GOING IN FOR THE KILL AS SOON AS I GET THIS SHIT OFF MY FACE.

(This review is for a performance I sadly paid for the night of June 9th, 2015. If you still want to see it, don’t blame me. We probably can’t be friends anyway.)


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