Review – Toxic Avenger – Southwark Playhouse

April 28, 2016 by

In a world in which super hero comic books are providing fodder for entire movie franchises, it doesn’t seem too unreasonable that a movie about a super hero would provide an inspiration for a stage musical. In this case, the movie is The Toxic Avenger, a B-movie that rose to success on the back of midnight showings in Greenwich Village. At its heart, the whole concept owes more to the Rocky Horror Picture Show than it does to X-men though, as the entire charm of this piece is based upon being campy and over the top – the complete opposite of pretty much every musical on stage right now, which, if they’re not trying to deliver a message, are at least attempting to be sincere.

Southwark Playhouse’s performance of The Toxic Avenger is very sincerely silly, from the plot (nerd dumped in toxic waste becomes an extremely unsexy super hero, a la The Hulk) to the costumes (the quick changes of the duo who played about ten different characters each were really remarkable) to the songs (“All Men Are Freaks” was a personal favorite). Although I initially worried the tiny cast (five!) had bitten off more than they could chew – I mean, think of the room-filling numbers of Titanic – the show played to the comedy elements of double casting quite deliberately, including the pure genius number “Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore” in which Lizzii Hills, who plays both the evil mayor of Tromaville and the Toxic Avenger’s mom, does a duet as both of them, AT THE SAME TIME – changing clothes behind a curtain and finally just switching which side of herself she was showing to the audience. It was a completely unique moment the likes of which I’d only ever seen in cabaret and I loved it!

Buuuut … I found I was having some problems with the show due to my own inability to just relax and go with it. I really had a problem with all of the jokes they were making at the expense of the Toxic Avenger’s blind girlfriend (Hannah Grover) … I mean, I know that only a blind person could love a guy with his brain exposed and an eyeball hanging down his face, but … having her crawl around on stage when she lost her cane actually made me cringe. I just couldn’t laugh. And sure, her sex drive was part of the comedy, but … it just felt kind of like a message in a bottle from the old days when it wasn’t okay for women to be sexually enthusiastic. Hell, it’s a message from today as well, and it’s not one I like. On the other hand, the sexual voraciousness of the mayor seemed pretty well integrated into her personality. But then … the two men who were playing the hairdressers … it just seemed … well, like such negative stereotyping. Maybe I’ve been living in London for too long, that I don’t enjoy making fun of people as much as I might have back in my twenties. I’ve just … I don’t know, grown up … grown up a bit too much to enjoy this play.

The songs, though, are really very good – and bad songwriting is the number one sin for a musical in my book (hah hah, get it) – and it’s overall high energy and fun, and sure to appeal to lots of people … but it just wasn’t for me, even though they did really hit all of those B-movie notes just right on, as well as all of the notes in the song. I expect it will be successful and I hope they have sell out houses, because fun musicals like this are very uncommon and this one is put together just right – it just isn’t to my tastes.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on April 25th, 2016. It continues through May 21.)

Review – Deathwatch – Print Room

April 26, 2016 by

It’s a damned good time to get caught up with you queer culture – Jean Genet has two plays on right now, and Deathwatch, which is getting its first major revival in thirty years, is a far better insight into Genet’s mind than the blowsy version of The Maids that’s being presented at Trafalgar Studios. It was my first visit to The Print Room’s new location (much closer to the Notting Hill Gate tube than their previous location had been to its transport), but as a fan of this subculture (and a member) I wanted to see this play live.

I know I’ve seen a pile of films set in prison, but none of them felt anywhere near as real as Deathwatch did, with seventy minutes used to compress years and years of resentment and silences into one non-stop sensory barrage that felt to me more like a rollercoaster ride than the silence and thoughtfulness I associate with standing by someone’s deathbed. Three convicts are locked together in a small cell, their relationships to each other – both connections (based on affection) and hierarchy (based on physical strength and aggression) painfully on display to us. The effect is heightened by the setting, which is circus-like – the cage the play takes place in sat in front of a big top as if we were watching caged tiger, an effect heighted by the decision to clothe the fourth member of the troupe as a ringmaster and then as a tightrope walker. The story, such as it is, seems to be about Green Eyes (Tom Varey) dealing with his impending execution by reliving the psychological truth of the murder he committed while his cell mates Lefranc (Danny Lee Wynter) and Maurice (Joseph Quinn) watch in fascination; but even that story, and their response to it, is all a part of the never ending struggle for dominance within the prison.

Each of the actors take advantage of their varied physiques to create vivid characters whose conflict sucks you in. Clearly Maurice is the weakest – his reliance on touch and seductiveness serving where being able to beat someone up is not possible. Green Eyes is masculine and beautiful, quick to anger and yet desirable to both of the other men … how could they not want to please him? This leaves Lefranc: hulking but desperate for approval from Green Eyes, absolutely despising Maurice, who knows exactly how to wind up him.

In some ways this play could be set in a dorm room or an army barracks, but it’s the clinging air of being close to death and unable to escape that makes this play so intense – that and the fine performances by the three lead actors. I consider it well worth my time and recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 16th, 2016. It continues through May 7th.)

Review – X – Royal Court

April 22, 2016 by

I really enjoyed Alistair McDowall’s Pomona, a delicious yet imperfect horror play that posited that no transdimensional monster could be as terrifying as the evil within the human heart. So I was excited to see that he was taking on the science fiction world with his new play, X, set at some point in the future on the planet Pluto, where the earth’s outpost has suddenly been cut off from home.

X delivered drama hand over fist, choosing wisely to focus on the human impacts of extreme circumstances; of removal from human society; of removal from belief in a future; of removal from the underpinnings that cluster together to keep us sane. With these bits and pieces extracted slowly from the cluster of people living together for what increasingly begins to feel like forever, how would they react? How would they treat each other? Could they even survive? Would they want to? But in addition to a compelling narrative, there was something I didn’t expect from this play: a fantastic approach to the conundrum of living in a world of dwindling resources. I can’t even be bothered to go to plays about climate change any more because they are such uniform failures as works of drama, but McDowall made a man playing bird calls the core of a scene that could raise tears in its simple sadness.

To make everything more fun, McDowall has added in time shifts …. jarring at first but extremely absorbable if you’re used to the genre … and then made the protagonist “unreliable.” To some extent it makes this play a bit more of a psycho-thriller; but what it really means is that we, the audience, are forced to constantly question what the “real” narrative is. This questioning continues long after the show is over.

So what does all this playwriterly tricksteriness mean? It means that I just had a really f**king good night at the theater. My companion and I were, in fact, jumping up and down with excitement about what a really good play we had just seen. And because it was a play, and not a book or a movie, the warping of convention was not just unexpected by truly remarkable. Sign me up for McDowall’s next play: I think I’m officially a fan.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 18th, 2016. It continues through May 7th. Bless the Royal Court and their £10 Mondays – it means so many more people that ought to see this show are going to be able to afford it.)

Mini-review – Reasons To Be Happy – Hampstead Theater

April 21, 2016 by

Since I enjoy Neil LaBute and had seen Reasons to be Pretty five years ago, it was a natural that I would make it to the Hampstead for his new play, Reasons to be Happy. It’s an update on the life of the four protagonists of Pretty, but something’s changed: LaBute’s energy has evaporated.

As a story, this show is almost as bland as a sitcom, but at the length of a rom com. The plebian nature of three of the protagonists – a hairdresser, a delivery driver, and a low-level manager at a “plant” – are as forward as they were before: they mock reading, worship sports, and dismiss both foreign cuisines and foreign cultures as equally weird and unnecessary. In fact, they’re so lowbrow that it’s a cause for comedy: certainly, when the one slightly educated character, Greg (Tom Burke), is asked, while holding a copy of something by Steinbeck, “Don’t you every read anything good?” the audience had a real laugh about it. I was nearly offended by LaBute’s slamming of the working class; it was barely forgivable because of his own nationality, but left me alternatingly cringing and wanting to run around apologizing to everyone in the audience.

With a bland plot interrupted by a nearly predictable surprise, we’re left primarily to enjoy the characters, who sadly suffer from LaBute’s failure to create more of a difference from the two female protagonists. Their embodiment of the nature of female friends in America is genuinely touching (as are Greg and Kent – Warren Brown – on the masculine side), but with Carly (Robyn Addison) and Steph (Lauren O’Neil) both blonde and slim, it became difficult to tell who was the violent one and who the pretty one (since this seemed to be the defining nature of each of their characters). All of the actors themselves seemed to be struggling with what to do with their characters as well, and the early scenes – late in the run – seemed clunky in a way that shouldn’t have happened if the actors really got who they were inhabiting. So … I found it uncompelling, despite the fact that the “big message” at the end of the play was one I agreed with. Overall, this seems a play well suited the Hampstead’s history of programming entertaining, unchallenging work that leave you with a few warm fuzzies but not a lot else at the end (other than the desire to pick up a few more good books).

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday April 13, 2016. It continues through April 23rd.)

Review – Showboat – Sheffield Theater at the New London Theater

April 15, 2016 by

I am sure that I saw the movie version of Show Boat ages ago, but walking into the production at the New London Theater last Saturday, I realized I pretty much had no idea of what I was about to see. I was pretty sure I’d be hearing “Old Man River,” but just what the heck was the show about? My memory failed me. I’d never had an opportunity to watch it on stage, so I was bound and determined to remedy that gap as soon as possible – I mean, Kern and Hammerstein, how awesome could it be? – and rushed to get in as early as possible. I was hoping for great songs, good dancing and a fine story, all enhanced by the magic that is the brilliant talent pool available to British stage productions. But in some ways I realized I’d also be looking at the show with my very modern eyes, and I had my suspicions that a play that actually looked at race in the US, written decades ago (indeed nearly 100 years ago!), was going to have a hard time passing muster. But, you know, good songs! And side balcony tickets for 19.50, so affordable!

Er, so maybe you don’t know/remember the plot, either? There’s a paddle boat, the Cotton Blossom, that sails down the Mississippi, doing shows for people in the various town (it’s the “Show Boat” of the title). It’s the Reconstruction, and blacks are treated like second class citizens … well, not really citizens at all, more like servants … and there’s all sorts of laws to keep them “in their place,” i.e. not to marry whites; and on top of this, they are pretty firmly kept apart socially, even in the entertainment arena. So … the big star of the Cotton Blossom is Julie La Verne (Rebecca Trehearne)- married to Steve Baker (Leo Roberts – always recognizable with his big sideburns). Julie is best friends with Mangolia Hawks (Gina Beck, whose voice soars like a skylark above everything in this show), who wants to act and has the talent for it ….

I mean, what am I supposed to say here? The plot has such an air of inevitability about it that writing about it seems silly. What I didn’t expect is that the second half would be set ten years ahead of the first act, and that the whole thing would end very curiously in the 20s, with the black people now retired and living in an apartment; and that somehow, the whole evening would end with people waltzing back on stage in the 1880s costumes from the beginning of the show. I was really gobsmacked by the ending, but it was because I couldn’t decide if it was more inevitable to see flapper dresses next to calico or to see Magnolia reunited with Gaylord (Chris Peluso) some twenty years after he’d walked out on her. Really? She never found anyone else she liked in all that time? Seriously? What the crap was this, Carousel meets Taming of the Shrew?

And … I mean, hey, has anyone noticed what a LOAD of non-Caucasian talent is on stage for this show? Aaand … did no one decide to maybe create some better roles for them? And Julie gets to be all noble and let her life be screwed up to help her friend? Talk about flaws you could sail a paddle boat through … this show had me pulling my hair out.

I also found my enthusiasm flattened by the noticably poor sound quality in our far side balcony seats (about ten away from the wall). I love how old fashioned musicals really use their songs to drive plot and character …. but I’m only guessing this would have been the case for Showboat, since I could only hear about 40% of the lyrics. I moved to the center balcony after the interval and, for the pleasure of having my knees jammed into the seat in front of me, I got only an extra 10% better sound. Hopefully they’ll improve that as the run goes on (the performance I saw was first preview), but … it seriously detracted from my experience.

Sadly, overall, I just wasn’t able to get into this show. There’s some good songs, but … I couldn’t find much to empathize with in any of the characters. The dance numbers mostly didn’t pull me in … I don’t know. I was ready for a good night out. What did I miss?

(This review is for the first preview performance which took place on April 9, 2015. It’ll probably be booking for a very long time.)

Review – In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel – Charing Cross Theater

April 14, 2016 by

Tennessee Williams, as the creator of a body of plays, is … interesting. Streetcar, Glass Menagerie and … well. A long tail. He proved his ability to capture the delicate workings of the inner psyche and the unspoken passions, especially of women, in 1950s America … and then continued writing for a very long time afterwards. This play was written (and set) in 1969, and it is from the era when Tennessee Williams was no longer writing hits.

The plot is fairly small: Miriam, the wife (Linda Marlowe) of an American artist (David Whitworth) is hanging around in the bar of a Tokyo hotel where her husband has taken up residence and is creating paintings in his room. They’ve been married for decades, and she seems to loathe him; she talks about wanting to be free from him, plays with the poison pill she carries with her, and fondles the crotch of the barman (Andrew Koji) while addressing the audience about her sexual appetite. The effect is gross and jarring, and compares poorly with the examinations of late-life relationships provided by Strindberg. Miriam is a cartoon, her husband’s artistic focus unbelievable; it all comes off like it’s Williams’ attempts to examine his own sexuality by cloaking it in his characters.

The three dimensionality of the characters is destroyed by both the clunky dialogue and its painful delivery. I found myself wondering to what extent the actors simply hadn’t been given time to rehearse, and to what extent the actors could just not find a damned thing to work with. I cringed at both of the leads’ line delivery: while I understand Miriam has to address the audience (or someone) in some of her ramblings, why in the world Whitworth turned to faced us midpoint in a conversation with Miriam just stumped me. It was like they were reading off of teleprompters – no feelings of actual humans, just a need to get through the words and to the end of the show. I couldn’t help but think they thought the script was as horrible as I did. “Never worry, never fear, one day you’d meet a rich old queer” – why in the hell did Williams think that was worthy of being spoken by one of his characters? It didn’t even make sense in context. It was like he had a lot of unpacking to do about his own life and was making his characters hash it out, but, my God, with the racism and cultural superiority of a 1960s American so fully on display I just wanted to run around the auditorium and apologize to everyone.

Urgh. This show once again reaffirms my belief that the works of Tennessee Williams need not all be taken in, as there are many cuckoos squawking in his literary nest. This particular one should have been tipped over the edge long before it was due to hatch as a favor to us all.

(This review is for the opening night performance at the Charing Cross Theatre, which took place on Monday, April 10th, 2015. It continues through May 14th.)

Review – I Loved Lucy – Jermyn Street Theater

April 10, 2016 by

It’s really interesting to think that thousands of more people are going to see Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum than will make it to Jermyn Street to see a far more realistic version of the same story. Although I Loved Lucy is sold as “what it was like to be with Lucy,” it’s really a more universal story of fame, adoration, loneliness, and dependency.

Set in (mostly) the late 70s and 80s, I Loved Lucy is the story of … well, in the real world it’s the story of a gay writer, Lee Tannen (Stefan Menaul), who becomes close friends with Lucille Ball (Sandra Dickinson) at the end of her life, then goes on to write a play about it that is called I Loved Lucy. Rather than being “based on real life events,” it is supposed to be biographical and truly real, meaning that if you’re a fan of Lucille Ball this is the theatrical experience you’ve been waiting for your entire life. The show is crammed full of detail – of clothing, friendships, gossip, and day to day minutiae – that makes it fantastic as a window into the life of a celebrity.

But … what if you don’t want to see a show about an actress who died almost thirty years ago? What if you’re not familiar with her work? What if … you didn’t love Lucille Ball? (And, gasp, what if this “warts and all” portrayal isn’t entirely true? Most biographies skip some stuff as too personal – sometimes to flatter the writer, sometimes to flatter the subject.) So let’s step back from this show as being very specifically about one actress and look at it as a story. I Loved Lucy, is, in an odd way, an inside-out Sunset Boulevard, taking a few of its ingredients – a star struck younger man, a fading actress with a strong personality – and then flipping them like a pancake, adding a strong dose of Hollywood Babylon (the celebrity dish is pretty yummy) but then making the story of loneliness, dependency and the difficulties of figuring out how to handle the inevitability of aging and death. With a gay man as the lead and a compelling actress standing in the role of a woman who despairs of never again getting to act. It’s a realistic and very human story that transcends its specificity (backgammon games, lynx fur coats) to hit universal notes of what it’s like to be a strong woman, how it felt to be a cog in an industry, and how to be close to someone at the end of their life.

I found myself also thinking of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where nearly a chapter is devoted to the death of the narrator’s grandmother – a woman I had spent hundreds of pages getting to know. The author created a relationship for me, and then he took it away, and watching it happen hurt. Even though we all know death is going to come, it’s still painful, but, in the case of this play as in the case of Proust, going along with these old people on that journey is a wonderful thing – a little more wonderful in that this bit of writing has a good lesson in how to be a friend to someone late in life. I loved it for that. And with such fine performances – Sandra Dickinson has a far more nuanced character to play than Glenn Close does, and I can hardly think of a richer role for an older actress – well, this is an example of jewelbox London theater at its best.

(This review is for the opening night performance of the second run of I Loved Lucy, which took place on Friday, April 8, 2016. It continues through April 23rd.)

Review – The Maids – Trafalgar Studios

March 14, 2016 by

It would be hard for me to say no to a chance to see one of the plays of the infamous Jean Genet. I’ve spent a lifetime hearing about him, but have had only one previous chance to see one of his works staged (and that was a student production). So I rocked right up to Trafalgar Studios for an early showing (it was some flavor of press night) of The Maids to check out, up close and in person (in fact in the front row) what all the fuss was about.

The set was done up so that it was like a little box in the middle of the theater, the floor covered with flower petals (and the corners twisting wood like for a four-poster bed). Two black women were on the stage as the curtain rose – one dressed in a fancy outfit and a blonde wig, the other in a maid’s uniform. I actually thought the blonde one was well and truly the rich woman being horribly, horribly cruel to her paid help. Finally I got that both of them were role playing, and I was able to relax a little into the story – although the story got creepier and creepier as time rolled on. These two women were sisters? Did they really hate each other that much? Were they supposed to have an incestuous relationship? I could understand them loathing their boss, but they seemed to hate themselves as well, but with a hatred in some way fed and watered by their job and by their employer.

And then … well, it kind of descended into a thriller/whodunit kind of thing. The “mistress” showed up, the maids got to freak out about lies they’d told and a phone call, and there was a big to-do about a cup of tea. The floor was swept and then covered with petals again. I found the ending blundering toward me like a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man … one hundred percent obvious from ten miles away and about as exciting to watch. Hmph. I suppose the whole thing was very cutting edge in the 1950s, but next time … I can probably get just as much cutting edge social commentary from watching a student show. I’m glad I went, but I don’t think there’s much to recommend this production other than satisfying the curiosity of seeing it on stage.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, March 1, 2016. It continues through May 21st.)

Mini-review – Escaped Alone – Royal Court Theatre

March 3, 2016 by

It’s been a week since I saw Escaped Alone at the Royal Court Theater and it’s been difficult to get motivated to write about it. I like short plays, I like plays written by women, I like plays starring women. But between Cleansed, Weald and Battlefield, there are other, better plays by women on (well, certainly more … controversial), better short plays on, and, now that Maids has hit Trafalgar studios, better plays with an all-female cast.

Escaped Alone has four women sitting in an English garden talking (in that pause-filled way that I now associate with Churchill’s writing) about the minutiae of their lives and their pasts, with breaks between in which one woman (Mrs Jarrett, Linda Bassett) talks about all of these crazy catastrophic situations that are so extremely over the top that they don’t even seem the least bit realistic and so don’t need to be responded to like they’re important.

I, unfortunately, found little to absorb me in the small conversations between the women, despite the bit about cats and murder, and was drifting off much like I would have been if, in real life, I had been stuck sitting with four very boring old women while they nattered on about their lives. Even at 50 minutes it felt a bit long. Oh well, I was grateful I’d gone for the ultra cheap yet horrible side seats, as £10 was about all I would have wanted to have spent for this experience.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 22nd, 2016. It continues through March 12th.)

Double Header Review – Weald, Finborough Theatre and Battlefield, Young Vic

February 24, 2016 by

There are two sweet, short shows on right now that end this week, and if you’re trying to decide which to book, you’re probably going to have to choose one or the other. Weald, on through the 27th at the Finborough, is a highly naturalistic show set in present day England that looks at the relationship between an older and a younger man working at a horse stable. Battlefield (at the Young Vic through the 27th), written and directed by Peter Brook (and Marie-Hélène Estienne), is a highly stylized slice of the Mahabharata, an epic story of battle and family rivalry. Night and day, right?

Well, actually, seeing the two shows so closely together, I found many more similarities than differences between them. Peter Brook, as world famous director, seems the likely choice to have created a better product, but in some ways his style has very much informed the production of Weald, which is (seemingly) all about horses with nary a horse on stage. Brook has us seeing gods walking on stage, people transforming into animals, souls leaving bodies and fires raging on stage; Weald similarly takes tiny cues (a bridle, feed buckets) and creates the snuffling, kicking, smelly, warm ungulates that are never represented by so much as a single hoof. It’s all about the actors and the words, and in both cases, our actors take us on a journey: to scenes of tragic death; to scenes of horrible betrayal; to scenes in which the golden light of humanity shines out of a mere actor’s eyes. I saw the grassy countryside through which Cromwell’s army marched, and the blood covered banks of the Ganges; and the goddess of the river rising and crying.

Weald isn’t a perfect script (Battlefield is doubtlessly stronger), and while Peter Brook has honestly created something I can mostly only describe as a perfect theatrical experience, well … I’d like to encourage you to try to see Weald, especially if you have seen a Brook work on stage before. I feel language that is so believable – and is about the world we live in now – is not often come by, and this work by a younger playwright could use you more that Brook can. But, really, they were both very special. Might I suggest you catch the final Sunday show and do the Brook as well? I think you will not consider it time poorly spent; I found it lovely.

(This review is for the Sunday February 21st performance of Weald and the Tuesday February 23rd performance of Battlefield.)


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