Review – Light – Theatre Ad Infinitum at the Battersea Arts Center

February 7, 2016 by

While “the surveillance state” seems like a loosy goosy premise to organize a play around, I’m pleased to say that Theatre Ad Infititum’s Light takes the core nightmare of the society we live in – one where we expect our communication with others to be private and yet now know that most of our communication is routinely monitored by this and other governments. It clear to see what a government on a mission can do to destroy a person’s life – I mean, there are people in Guantanamo to this day who have had no charges brought against them – and the distance between our current situation and a living dystopia is probably little more than the flick of a switch away.

The style of Light is very much like a silent movie (say by Guy Maddin) – all dialogue is broadcast in text above the stage, and the movement is highly stylized to increase the emotional effect of the action. Scenes are “set” with circles of light that might only have a hand or a face in them – so our gaze is guided from moment to moment onto very specific things. The performers often hold the lights and move them around to achieve this effect, and also seem to “throw” LEDs (in red and green) that are meant to show people “sharing” their thoughts with each other (although it could just as easily be people sending text messages and getting them on their phones). The nightmare at the core of this is that now our “receiving devices” are internal instead of external (phones), and these implanted devices are required by and monitored by the state. The plot is a bit about a rebel group trying to free people from the tyranny of surveillance but also about how this surveillance state came to be.

As a theatrical experience, I found the intense sensory assault (there is quite a bit of noise and we’re also occasionally blinded, then reverted to near full darkness) engaging: I liked having my focus so strongly guided. I’m also a science fiction fan, and I found the Matrix-like elements of the plot very enjoyable – in fact, the way this play rode the edge of reality made it feel much more plausible than a story about us being used as batteries. Finally, at 70 minutes, it was pretty damned snappy, with just about 5 minutes of tightening needed. And, boy, my 12 quid ticket could not be beat. In short: it’s excellent, so do try to go, if for no other reason than to see one of the best and most original lighting designs to ever grace the London stage.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, February 1st, 2016. It continues through February 13th.)

Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theater

January 31, 2016 by

There are three playwrights whose works I collect obsessively, aiming for “the complete set.” Shakespeare isn’t one of them, oddly enough … but Ibsen and Pinter are. The third member of this set? American author August Wilson, whose work The Piano Lesson I first saw in a student production at Rutgers University in the mid-nineties. Then when I moved to Seattle, I had the opportunity to see one after another of his works – some of them debuts – at the Seattle Repertory Theater. I saw him hanging out writing at a local coffee shop. He was an icon of American history, a playwright with a compelling vision of documenting the African American experience in the 20th century.

I was afraid I’d never get to see his plays again after moving to the UK and The Pittsburgh Cycle would be forever left with gaps. But to my joy, the Young Vic decided to stage Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2010, and the game was back on … but with a long, long gap between that show and the National Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which officially opens February 2nd. I couldn’t wait after five years of no Wilson, though, and I went and got a ticket for the first night of previews. It’s nearly the earliest in the cycle and it was the second one he wrote – and its subject, the fabulous (titular) 1920s blues singer, was one who I was eager to see on stage. I mean, this was IT. I was so there.

At the start, musicians Cutler (Clint Dyer), Levee (O-T Fagbenle), Toledo (Lucian Msamati), and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) sit in the green room and warm up while waiting for Ma herself to appear. The play begins to seem like it’s another Waiting for Godot – but with four musicians waiting for eternity to pay them a visit. I stepped back, though, and realized what I was actually seeing on stage: August Wilson giving us a chance to see how African Americans act with each other when they’re not under the gaze of white Americans (in this case the fractious recording studio bosses, Sturdyvant – Stuart McQuarrie – and Irvin – Finbar Lynch). Yeah, there’s some discussions about how black and white Americans deal with each other, but what’s more important is that it’s four men talking philosophy and bullshit, being friends with each other, talking about their aspirations, being themselves in a way that’s impossible to do when under the eye of The Man. Wilson’s given us a gift, a chance to be backstage on a number of levels, and as an audience member, my job was to sit back and enjoy.

This isn’t Beckett redux, though: Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) does appear, and, oh my, she is SUCH a character, a million megawatts of talent with willpower that could send a rocket to Pluto and back. I can see why Wilson wanted to immortalize her in a play. Seeing a black woman fight to get what’s hers – and pushing back and the ridiculous barriers people try to fence her in with because of her race and gender – was inspirational. I was also amazed to see her toting Dussie Mae, a female groupie (Tamara Lawrance), with her into the recording session – giving us a bit of a chance to see a bit of life on the other side of that power divide. I have no idea to what extent any of this was based on historical evidence or if Wilson just cooked it up in his head – but Wilson (and Lawrance) has created an impressively real character and dynamic, and I was … well, I couldn’t tear my eyes off of the stage. Wow.

The ending … well, you guys know we’re not living in a very nice world, right? And Wilson reminds us that some things haven’t really changed a lot in (nearly) a hundred years, and gives us food for thought. It was a good payout for my financial and time (2:35) investment, and I hope the run is as successful as the quality of the cast and the material deserve.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on January 25th, 2016. It continues through May 18th.)

Review – Botallack O’Clock – Third Man Theater at Old Red Lion Theater

January 25, 2016 by

Plays about artists. How do you do it, really? How do you show the creative process? Playwrights, well, they’re easy; and for some reason people have tended to think (especially in film) that painters can be shown … well, by showing them painting. But that’s not really showing the creative process. And I don’t think showing them dealing with their personal relationships really captures it either. So this play, to my relief, has taken a completely different approach to showing how an artist works.

But first, a little background. Roger Hilton was a painter who lived in the Cornish town of Botallack from 1965 until 1975, when he died. This play is set at some point during the last two years of his life, which he spent essentially living in his bed and painting over its side, onto sheets of paper on the floor and, apparently, drinking like a fish. It’s the wee hours of the morning and Hilton is bouncing around his flat my himself … well, more like flopping that bouncing. He’s talking about what he has to drink, he’s talking about the little things that interrupt his thinking, he grumbles about the cat drinking his paint water. And then he turns on his radio, and he starts talking to it.

Hilton’s ramblings (as imagined by Eddie Elks) cover a bit about his life and a bit about his art, but what I think they’re doing on a bigger level is showing the leaps that the artist makes from one idea to the next, from the mundane to the bigger arc of life to what it’s like to be an artist to … well, everywhere. To Lear, to women, to bears, to Beethoven. All of these things make the soup that forms his brain and somewhere out of this the art comes out. As a work of written theater, it’s quite a feat to string so much randomness together, but, as a work of watched theater … well, there may have been an arc but I didn’t see one for the character or a story; it was just like bobbing around in somebody else’s brain. Dan Frost was very convincing, but I found myself not really happy at going on this ride; rather, I was restless. What I think Botallack O’clock has created is a very convincing imagining of what really goes on in the mind of an artist; I’m just not convinced that I wanted to go on that trip with him.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, January 21, 2015. It continues through February 6th at the Old Red Lion.)

Review – Funny Girl – Menier Chocolate Factory (then Savoy)

January 9, 2016 by

It’s nice to go see a show that has been already committed to a transfer (not to mention sold out for the entire run), as this pretty well guarantees that you’re going in to see a winner – and even if it’s not a five star show, you get a whole extra star’s worth of smugness for being able to get in while the seats are cheap. Yep, I’m talking about Funny Girl, about the only show I can remember that not just sold out most of its run before it opened, but had sold out months of its transfer to the big stage as well. So, yes, when a passel of “well these are really restricted view but you can sort of see the stage most of the time” seats came up for grabs one day, I jumped all over it. You see, it pays to keep going back to the website and hoping something will come up, especially for tickets at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Since it opened, most of the complaining I have heard about Funny Girl has been about how it’s just not as good as the movie, really. And by this, what people mean (and sometimes say directly) is that Sheridan Smith is not as powerful a singer as Barbra Streisand. But you know what? She’s a more compelling Fanny Brice. There, I’ve said it, now complain away. The feeling I came with when I finished seeing the movie ever so many years ago was that it was hard to see much of a tragedy in Funny Girl because the lead came off so full of egotism that you couldn’t really root for her to succeed. I felt Barbra’s own ego was taking over her ability to portray Fanny as a sympathetic character, someone with any weaknesses at all.

But Sheridan Smith, now, she’s a whole ‘nother story. Every self confident word that comes out of her mouth has a tint of “but I’m not really all that, am I, I just want to be more,” and this makes her greatest flaw as a person, her blind love for rascal Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell), a completely understandable gap for someone who desperately needs to feel like she is actually loved. Fanny needs to get external affirmation in a world where she is constantly struggling with not being beautiful enough. I mean, how many other women out there have struggled with being told “but you have a nice personality” when what you want to hear is “you’re so gorgeous I can’t believe my good luck that you’re even talking to me?” For the most handsome man she’s ever met to treat her like a shining diamond, well, I was absolutely sucked into Fanny’s happiness and, even knowing the end, I was able to buy the emotional arc of the story and this comes down to Sheridan Smith’s performance (well and a good book). I did not like the movie of Funny Girl but this live stage performance … well, it gives you all the feels, and that’s what I want when I fork over for a musical, to walk out swooning with emotion.

Let’s not pass over the rest of the show, though, because this is not a production that hangs on one person and crumbles on the edges. I loved loved loved, all of the scenes set in Brooklyn with Fanny’s mom (Marilyn Cutts) and her group of gal pals: I went with a Jewish American friend and those scenes honestly made us homesick. And the dance scenes were BANG POW PIZAZZ! I was never expecting there to be so much tap dancing in this show! It all seemed a wee bit crowded on the Menier stage, but hey, give me dancing that’s so big it spills over, now THAT’S what I want in a musical!

Oh, wait, didn’t I say I wanted something else in a musical? Well, in this case, really, the only thing I really wanted is for Nick Arnstein to be softer on the edges. Some of the problem is doubtlessly how he’s written – apparently he was actually far more of a scoundrel than they were allowed to show him when this show was created (due to possible lawsuits), but I think, well, if Alec Guiness can make me believe in the Force, Darius Campbell should have been able to make me believe in Nick Arnstein. He just didn’t seem to have any depth or reality to him, like someone had once seen Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind on a bad video tape and then tried to make that in to a three-dimensional being. I suspect he needs to be written a little meaner and more scheming, and, without those words, Cambpell needs to find a way to bring the character to life that’s outside of what’s on the page.

Overall, though, this was a great night out and I’d go back to see it again – and doubtlessly will once it hits the Savoy.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 19th, 2015. It continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 5th 2016, then moves to the Savoy Theater in April. Buy your tickets either directly from the Menier or from the ATG website as there’s lots of scalping going on and no need to play that game.)

Review – Guys and Dolls – Savoy Theater

January 5, 2016 by

The Savoy Theater has been the place to be for me in 2015: I made five visits in total, the most I went to any mainstage London house (the Southwark Playhouse actually got the most attention thanks to my three trips to Xanadu). I was enthused about going back for a chance to see Guys and Dolls, especially after seeing what you could do with it in a small space some years ago (at the Gatehouse) – just imagine it all done on a big stage! Wow! The possibility!

The set, though, didn’t go for huge New York feel, but rather an evocative but not detailed look: most of what happened what done behind a background of curiously shaped period billboards with (occasional) neon outlines, easily enough redone to imply Cuba when required. Otherwise, the decor was mostly a few chairs, a podium, a desk and a news stand. It wasn’t exactly cheap, but it looked like it wouldn’t have even taken up one moving truck.

But hey! The music! The story! So much to love! And somehow neither the Adele/Nathan Detroit nor the Sky Masterson/Sarah Brown relationships were really clicking. Now that’s not to say Siobhan Harrison wasn’t really enjoyable as Sarah (especially in the Cuban scenes) – but you want to feel energy crackling between then – Sky’s power as a skilled seducer and her curiosity to take a trip on the wild side sending big crackling bolts between them. And Adele and Nathan just seemed too damned old for there to ever be a chance of them having all of the kids Adele’s been making up for those letters back home to mom. I could mostly buy them as long suffering partners but on the lines of two decades and not just one. T

This left me with the dancing to catch my attention, and boy did it. The catfight scene in the Cuban bar was all sorts of fun, and both “Rocking the Boat” and “Luck Be a Lady” were genuine showstoppers. Is this what Carlos Acosta can do when his dancers take off their toe shoes? Wow. I’m sensing another Jerome Robbins here because these numbers alone pumped Guys and Dolls up so much they were worth a second trip.

Well … actually that’s not true, even if the dancing was a standout. Tickets to the Savoy are too damned expensive and I won’t stand for less than 4 or 5 stars, and dance alone can’t give that much of a lift. It was a serviceable but forgettable show, I’m sorry to say, and was already slipping from my memory as I was walking to the tube. Not what you want when the bill is yet to be paid and already know luck weren’t your lady that night.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on December 17th 2015. It continues through March 12th and apparently Grand Circle seats are available for 25 for all shows – no surprise given how flat it was.)

Review – Red Riding Hood – Greenwich Theater

December 27, 2015 by

I thought I’d hit all of the panto staples, but it turns out Red Riding Hood was completely new to me, so, whether it was for its tradition of excellence or because i wanted to try a brand new panto flavor, Greenwich Theater was a must visit show for me this year. Always done on a shoe string, their pantos have the benefit of an extraordinary dame and writer in Andrew Pollard. His knowledge of panto history and good panto structure has been endlessly on display over the several years I’ve been going to see his productions, and, in a sea of identikit productions with talentless pseudo-celebrities and an emphasis on glitz over wits, Greenwich has floated right to the top, horrible puns, silly costumes and all.

So, what is the plot of Red Riding Hood? Right in keeping with December’s headlines about Tory end of session giveaways, Red Riding Hood features an evil villain, Count Frackula, who’s headed to Red’s forest home with the plan of destroying it to get at the gas underneath. Red’s grandmother (played by Pollard) runs a theater in the forest, near a ski resort where … um … the three little pigs work and … um … a charming prince has come in disguise to find a bride. Really, the story is a bit of a mish mash, but we have comedy, romance, and villainry, so despite my confusion as to how the actual story was supposed to work (we’ve got two hours to fill after all and the traditional story just doesn’t have that much to it).

Pollard once again delivered, with fantastic dame outfits, songs that captured pop moments of the past and present, and piles of improv, which fairly destroyed the handsome prince’s ability to finish scenes but turned the evil count into an even more hysterical character than he would have been without the silver spangled codpiece (and a physique that filled out his black spandex body suit quite nicely, phwoar!). And while the three pigs might have been a fairly disposable add-on, Alim Jayda’s acrobatic performance as the boy pig took a side role and gave it real pizazz. Add on squirt guns, bondage, lycanthropy, and what do you have? A darn good time out. If every panto were this enjoyable, they wouldn’t be so quickly dismissed as seasonal children’s theater but recognized as the staple of British theater that they are. No wonder they sell out so regularly!

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 18th, 2015. It continues through January 10th.)

Review – Robin Hood – Theater Royal Stratford East

December 20, 2015 by

With its racially mixed, working class vibe, Theater Royal Stratford is ideally placed to hit the same sweet spot at the Hackney Empire panto. Their audience is reflected in their jokes, their casting, their music and their plotlines, with the villains frequently figures who have caused trouble locally  (properly developers, for example). It’s all done on a shoestring, with simple costumes and no celebrity casting – in the goal, I believe, of keeping it locally affordable. So Wimbledon and Richmond get Pamela Anderson and Priscilla Presley (or their ilk) and deluxed sequinned glamour; it’s reflected in the sky high ticket prices.  I want wit and enthusiasm, anyway, and smaller pantos, with their emphasis on creating a good show, seem to deliver more of what I want.

That said: what happened with this year’s Stratford Panto? There was, as near as I can tell, no current political jokes; the songs, while all original, were actually not as good as if they’d been clever rehacks of popular hits; and the only jokes that seemed aimed at the adults in the crowd were a few tacky jokes about body parts. What we did get were fart jokes, sword play, and a comical bit with a squasher. It was a kids’ show top to bottom and I felt a bit trapped in it: the huge highlights were King Richard (Ashley Campbell)’s tap dancing number and the dame, “Nursey” (Derek Elroy)’s fantastic turn hassling a random audience member to help out with a gag (and also steal him away from his wife). This improv scene was giggle-tastic and to me seemed a sign of what might have happened more often if the cast had been a bit more playful. But instead … well, it was dry where it should have been gushy, and perhaps a bit too concerned with getting its politics correct instead of going for a satisfying evening. I mean, it’s fine that Marion (Nadia Albina) can out-shoot Robin Hood (Oliver Wellington) but no big, pretty wedding scene at the end? It was disappointing. I still hope it does alright for the theater but it was the first time I’d ever been to a panto and really, really felt like I was just at a kids’ show.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Wednesday, December 16th, 2015. It continues through January 23rd.)

Review – Mirror, Mirror – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

December 16, 2015 by

With the wealth of musical talent at their disposal, Charles Court Opera has the ability to make a panto that’s far above the average. They also have a much more diverse audience – with their focus on smaller venues, rather than coming up with ultra family friendly fare suitable for the kiddies, they can have some fun with lots of clever songs and jokes that aim for a higher bar and still have one sold-out night after another. Their confidence and style was perfectly captured in Snow White’s first appearance : silhouetted, stilleto-eted, loudly fêted. Okay, John Savournin was in flats, but still: here was a fabulous dame worth cheering for, all six foot three of her.

As Snow White, Mirror Mirror took quite a few diversions from the typical story: Snowy isn’t a virginal lass abused by the evil queen and saved by the huntsman; no, she’s a sexy widow (of Barry White, natch) who’s buried herself in domestic service (to dwarves) to escape her loneliness. Then along comes a prince with a fortune (Amy J Payne), and suddenly Queenie (Nicola Jolley) and Snow are in competition….

The jokes came thick and plentifully. Actually some of them would have used that line as a lead in to a gag: God knows, “My perfume? It’s called ‘Come to me’,” and its punchline were probably both old as the hills and entirely unsuitable for a family audience: it nearly unseated the prince and I can’t bear to repeat it. More clever (but not as hysterics inducing) was a bit at the beginning where Mrs. White is bleeped as she introduces the dwarves, then is obliged to tell us that due to the fear of being sued, most of them will need to be known my humorous approximations of the more famous monikers given to them by a certain Hollywood animation giant. This all leads into a great schtick in which Matthew Kellet comes on as each of the dwarves, wearing an only-slightly modified costume for each. (Ultimately this is a set up for a great sight gag at the end. These are some clever people. I won’t tell you what it is so you can enjoy it.)

To shake up the story a bit, Savournin has given the queen several more opportunities to interfere in Snowy’s househould, including spell casting (to the dismay of the prince’s valet, Andrea Tweedale, whose superb singing voice made me wish she’d been given a bigger part), a fatality-inducing DIY episode (never did Disney have the queen depicted as a plumber), and then finally, well, something with an apple, but the entire plot was being deconstructed into something about lost love and would Snow ever get over Barry.

It was all extremely ludicrous and even better because of the fabulous song craft, which skewered, “My Heart Goes Boom,” “Candle in the Wind,” and “You Make Me Feel (like a natural woman)” sung in such a deep voice I was starting to cry. And there were horrible puns, a candy toss, a sploosh scene, and enough political jokes to keep us on our toes. Could there be a more perfect panto? I’d buy tickets for next year’s today if they were on sale now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 12, 2015. It continues through January 9th.)

Mini-Review – Victorian and Gay – Hope Theatre

December 13, 2015 by

Although I’m unfamiliar with “Horrible Histories,” the description of Victorian and Gay (at the Hope Theater) really caught my eye. I’m a fan of the Victorian era (especially the clothing), so an “immersive, no-holds-barred seasonal celebration, for adult eyes only” sounded just fabulous, even more so with the promise of “lewd caroling and bawdy bacchanalia.” Bring on the hoop skirts and fill up the punch bowl, I am ready for some fun!

We started downstairs, where our performers joined the pub patrons of The Hope for a bit of flirting and silliness. I was … well, not impressed by the costumes. It’s not fair, I’ve spent years studying the details of Victorian dresses, jewelry, and accessories, and it was all …. evocative but slap dash. Especially the hair. I figured, though, most productions can’t afford to spent 500 quid per person getting everything right, so decided to accept that I was getting an “evocation” and headed upstairs.

We were greeted in a living room set up with a piano and a Christmas tree and chairs arranged in a circle, the cast members visiting with us (and drinking rather a lot). We had two sisters (Steffi Walker and Bethany Greenwood), a mouthy Englishman (Gideon – Monty Jones), an expansive American pianist (Tom Jack Merivale) and a bad tempered, Welsh servant (Lottie Davies). The sense of it being Victorian was completely falling apart for me … nobody’s behavior was right, there was too much drinking, and the number of jokes about the “pianist” and other bits of sexual innuendo were funny (sort of) but really not believable during an era when pianos and tables would have their feet covered so no one would see their ankles.

Moving on to the entertainment, we had some Welsh/Scottish jokes (made at the expense of the maid), some Catholic bashing (by the maid), an abbreviated Christmas Carol (almost funny), and a completely hysterical skit with the maid playing Queen Victoria and Gideon her hapless consort – hapless insofar as he is just being given a “Prince Albert” ring. We ended with a Nativity pageant that had about half of the audience participating. And at some point, we were told a little story about how the “sisters,” Lady Ermintrude and Lady Griselda, were actually widowed sisters in law who were in love with each other. This explained why they were acting progressively more lascivious with each other, but in no way gave any historical focus for the entire thing.

Given the excellence (and genuine humor!) of this year’s production of Fanny and Stella, it seems to me that Victorian and Gay could really have done so much more with the source material available to them instead of just lumping it all of this miscellany together without doing good period research and trying to use that specificity to make it come to life. In the end, it felt like one of those horrible Christmas puddings that has far too much fat and has forgotten to get the proportions of the ingredients right as if enough rum will take care of everything. Oh well, at least I got to see my companion dressed as a donkey, and that was a little memory I’ll enjoy far longer than anything else in this show.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Thursday, December 10, 2015. It continues through December 31st.)

Preview – The Xmas Carol – Vulcanello Productions at The Old Red Lion

December 10, 2015 by

It’s that time of the year when I try to hit my three holiday touch points – one Nutcracker, one Messiah, and one Christmas Carol. Two years ago I went a bit overboard and saw three, and had this revelation: this story matters, not because times have changed since it was written, but because they haven’t. The rich still put themselves above the poor, and think they deserve what they get; in fact, the entire politics of the previous five years has been about putting the poor down for not having enough money, depicting them as scroungers. A Scrooge today wouldn’t just not give money to the poor, he’d help write a law that would take away Tiny Tim’s wheelchair … and his dad, if he were an immigrant. Maybe they could turn to reality TV to make up the difference in what they were legally denied … but chances are, they’d just never get it.

This, then, was my inspiration for writing The Xmas Carol, a modern-day political satire inspired by Dickens’ classic. I thought I’d seen it enough times to understand it, but now, wow, I can tell you I know it inside and out. And I still think it’s a story that matters – not just because of its great characters, but because of its great message, which isn’t about Christmas – it’s about the enduring value of caring for one another. I think it’s gone a bit out of style, but I’d like to change that, so I wrote a little play about it, and this Sunday and Monday it’s going to be happening at The Old Red Lion.

It would be nice to see you there. Won’t you join us?

(I apologize for not blogging much over the last few weeks, but, really, this show thing has been keeping me really busy. Don’t worry, I’ll try to make up for it in the next 10 days.)


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