Archive for December, 2007

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker (at Sadler’s Wells)

December 31, 2007

Of all of the holiday shows I’ve been anticipating, the one that was an absolute Must See was Matthew Bourne’s “Nutcracker.” This is because 1) the Nutcracker is a must, at least as long as I can keep seeing new versions of it and 2) I love Matthew Bourne’s choreography. So I arranged a block of four tickets (using both of the two for one vouchers I’d got with my renewed Sadler’s Wells membership) on a date in the middle of the “festive season” when my Canadian visitor would be able to accompany us.

To my surprise (and since I like to be surprised I often don’t read about a show at all beforehand), Bourne had completely reset the first half of the ballet. Instead of a party in which a bunch of spoiled children are given gifts and some dull adults dance insipidly while we all wait for The Suite Spot, Bourne set the show in an orphanage, in which the children are abused by the headmaster and headmistress and forced to dance for potential donors (who have presents for the children). The fights over the toys were much more story-driven, and while there was no Uncle Drossmeier, I didn’t find myself missing him at all as the children got into a huge fight and took the orphanage over from their captors – er, “caretakers.” It was great! It was exciting! And the redhaired “Nutcracker” doll looked JUST like a Charlie McCarthy ventriloquists dummy and was creepy as hell, so when he came to life, it was scary. Was he going to eat Clara? Was he going to beat up the kids in the orphanage? Anything seemed possible because we had gone so very far off script. The scene ended with what I think of as the snowflake dance (I can’t remember what it’s called right now), set as ice skating on a lake, with all of the orphanage residents recast as white clad skaters – and Clara fighting to get her nutcracker man back from a seductive other girl (the Carmen of CarMan, which I saw back in August).

Act 2 was also very much re-set, although it did have the series of themed dances for the “suites” – only there were only Spaniards left, no Russians or “Persians.” Instead we had a seductive (creepy) Yoga instructor, a motorcyle gang (the Russian dance),  and a bunch of fluff headed, high-heeled chorines bouncing around and going to a party together. They all wound up in Sweetie land, which had a Busby Berkeley worth giant cake in the background, covered with all of the dancers, who proceeded to lick the cake and each other throughout the rest of the show. (This was really just too bizarre but I loved it, even though I had to keep watching the dancers hands and mouths to see what they were up to – it’s not the kind of thing I’m normally watching for during a ballet!) I was completely caught up in all of the sparkly costumes and rather hypnotic movement – yeah, Clara Nutcracker other characters, whatever, I was having a good time.

And the end, well, yes, there was an end,  and it was great fun, and really, why haven’t you gone to see it already? I can easily imagine watching this again and it really just supports my entire love for Matthew Bourne. He supports my belief – perhaps he’s even created the belief – that these works of danceable music are every bit telling stories that are just as trancendant as any Shakespearean tale, and they can easily handle being reworked and updated and shuffled around and still tell a compelling, exciting, tale. The great thing about Bourne is that he also makes them very watchable and relevant. It’s a shame, really, the Ballet Boyz (and Chris Wheeldon) have recognized that ballet is losing its audience and must be updated – but they’re not managing to do it in a way that makes it relevant to people who don’t have ballet experience. Bourne absolutely makes great dance that really connects to people, right in the gut, with emotions that people can relate to, and all while following (though not slavishly) the story of these great ballets. I do really hope that ballet can manage to not become completely culturally irrelevant over my lifetime but if it does start to grow its audience again, it will be because of Matthew Bourne and not because of people who are doing beautiful, sterile choreography to Phillip Glass.

(This post is for a performance that took place Friday, December 29th.)

Millais at the Tate Britain and the Dennis Sever’s House Christmas Tour

December 28, 2007

These events are both “art” events, though since the Dennis Sever’s house is kind of a theatrical still life I think it deserves to be included here …

The Millais exhibit up at the Tate was was a good way to spend the afternoon, at least if you are a Millais fan. The first two rooms were mostly filled with the paintings of his I’ve seen a million times before – Ophelia, Mariana, Christ in the House of his Parents, The Order of Release, Autumn Leaves – the really pretty paintings I’m so fond of but …. well, let’s be honest, which occasionally have a touch of schmaltz to them. (I still like many of them quite a lot, and enjoyed seeing new works I’d not seen before, such as “Love,” pictured, and the studies for many of the paintings I was very familiar with.)

The “schmaltz” factor seemed to more and more take over as the exhibit wore on. I was happy that he found love in Effie Ruskin (whose portrait he painted many times), but once he had eight kids to feed, I guess he threw artistic purity out of the window in favor of commercial success. Sappy sweet kiddie portraits, random decorative romantic “scenes,” society portraits … the middle three rooms (“The Boyhood of Raleigh,” “The Ruling Passion,” bleah!) were full of what looked like the kind of crap you need to crank out to keep the bills paid.

That said, the last room was full of lovely Scottish landscapes that he painted when he ran away from London society and went to live “the life of an English gentleman,” which apparently involved a lot of hunting and fishing and hiding in little huts for seven hours a day painting water pouring over volcanic rocks. Unfortunately I was a bit too tired by this time to really appreciate this art and just wanted to sit down and have some more tea and recover a bit.

Afterwards, off we went to Liverpool Street Station to meet Spikeylady and enjoy a christmas tour through the Dennis Severs house. All of the house was lit by candlelight and in each room it appeared the occupants had just left – leaving behind a half eaten softboiled egg, a whiff of perfume, some overturned crockery, etc. I found it all quite charming but felt like a little bit of it was passing me by! Apparently the whole house was the artistic project of Dennis Severs, who died some years back, but like my last trip to see a Punchdrunk production (in this case Faust), I felt like I was just a little bit behind getting what was holding it all together. But it was neat, anyways. I’d like to do it when I’m feeling not the least bit worried about whether or not other people are finding it interesting, or perhaps even during the rest of the year, when it’s open at lunchtime and such and not filled full of Christmassy things. The neighborhood itself is also very interesting – just a tiny nubbin of what used to be there and frighteningly dominated by the various shiny bank buildings just a block away. I must go back and just take a stroll after the holidays are over.

Stephen Frye’s Cinderella at the Old Vic

December 26, 2007

I don’t want to indicate all we’ve done is eat for the last three days, but my tendency now is to talk about having biscuits and gravy for breakfast and then sausage and booooooze (I mean butterbean gratin) for dinner.  Food food food, eat eat eat! This is probably because today is a holiday in England and you can’t really do much because most of the shops are closed and public transportation is limited. I managed, though, thanks to the Tube and to having tickets bought long ago for … Stephen Frye’s Cinderella at the Old Vic, which we saw this afternoon. In short: you’ll get more panto kick at Dick Whittington’s Cat at the Hackney, and this show is very rude but not that funny.

Oh, gosh, my tummy is so full, it’s just hard to focus on writing right now! Okay, write write write … we had pretty good quality acting overall for this show – the background dancers were all on time and on key, and the costumes looked quite well done and not the least bit tacky. We also had a reappearence of “Man in Chair” as our narrator. That said … it was all a little … too good. This was SERIOUS panto, that was taking itself VERY seriously, and people just didn’t have enough room to be silly. All of the panto “elements” seemed a bit forced – the pie fight had no context, the singalong was not even tied into the theme of the show (in any way), and the audience talk-backs were … quick and perfunctory. Yay, we mocked Cinderella for being just too good for her health, yay, Buttons was gay …. but where were my drag queens, where were my fun and goofy songs? Where were the outrageous costumes? Where was my camp? Where were my tears of “it’s just too much” chortles? Instead we got many little political (and other) inside jokes … but it all seemed to come at the expense of what it is that makes panto fun. At least when you write for an 8 year old you can write with abandon. Cinderella wanted to be clever but seemed to forget how to laugh. Yes, yes, the basket of food had the missing data CDs, now where’s my corny pun? Where’s my OTT costumes?

At any rate, while my visiting Canadian guest found it absurd and enjoyable, I just felt like it could have been much sillier and more raucous and was disappointed. If you’re only doing one panto and you’re looking for a good time rather than being intellectually tickled (and not very hard at that), head to the Hackney Empire instead. I mean – they have monkeys! What more can I say?

Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio at the Royal Opera House/Linbury

December 22, 2007

After work on Friday I went to the Royal Opera House for the misbilled “ballet” Pinocchio. It wasn’t a ballet; it was a sung opera, in that irritating modern style (like the Pierrot ballet, may I die before I see such a bad thing again), with accordion music backing it (making no fans in shadowdaddy). It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but I was grateful that it was short, and during the scene in the whale, I pointed out to bathtubgingirl, “Look! They’re swimming toward the denouement!” I also mentioned to her that she’s young enough now to know to skip it if they revive it.

I can’t get excited about writing about this show. We debated leaving during intermission but stuck through it though only because it was short. I can only say that the bit after the intermission was better because we saw the end drawing nigh. Music and ballet: I think it’s not a good combination.

(This review is for the December 22nd performance.)

Train of Thought – King’s Cross (A Minkette Production)

December 18, 2007

Train of Thought Without doubt, one of the most clever shows I will have seen this year is going to be “Train of Thought,” a terribly fun event that took place for just barely a week. The concept, as it was explained to me, was that you would ride the tube and be able to hear the thoughts of the other riders. This massively clicks with several of my interests, most specifically, site specific performance and, um, not telepathy but the concept of a dreamtime where you experience several different layers of reality (many pasts, for example) while being aware of being in the now. (I also am interested in the Tube in general, not to a freakish level of geekishness, but enough.)

Anyway … the play was more fun than I expected, despite having many of the challenges I associate with site-specific works. (If you go to a lot of these, you realize that the vagaries of the space, especially if it is a public space, is something you just have to deal with. You’re not going to sit down in your chair and have an usher and get drinks during the interval – it’s just not how it works.) We actually met a “conductor” before the show (and were caught up with the rest of the group), but then had to wait 20 minutes for a circle line to show up.

From then on, it was pretty smooth sailing. The gig was that we had headphones on listening to a radio station, and a little FM transmitter was broadcasting to us on “The Oracle Line” (marked on a map we were given out before we boarded), which said what the names of the different stops were as we pulled up to them – and admonished us to Mind the Gap as we exited the train. It also let us in on the thoughts of our other passengers, in a series of vignettes – from the usual mindless “where’s my book” to “God, look at these pictures of us when we went to Barbados …” to “I hate my job” – but as you heard the “thoughts” played you cast your eyes about the train trying to figure out who was “thinking” them. I had total synchronicity with the “where’s my book” guy – it was really just like reading his mind! I found this ridiculously pleasant.

While I did have problems with reception at times, overall this was a great play and I can’t wait to see what Minkette will do next time!

(This review is of a performance done Friday, December 14th.)

English National Ballet’s “The Snow Queen” at the London Coliseum: Our thoughts

December 14, 2007

(A bigger review to follow but this should be enough to save you fussing over the show being sold out.)

Me: “The Little Mermaid,” that would make a good ballet, if they could figure out how to do the costumes.
Him: Matthew Bourne should totally do Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a ballet.
Me: The little old lady sitting next to me, she was really fun to talk to.
Him: She sure knew her ballet.
Me: It was only 15 pounds, so it wasn’t that bad of a night, right?
Him: Was it just me or did act 3 go on forever?
Me: No, we were tired of the ballet some time during act 2, so we were just worn out for all of act 3.
Him: Was the climax of the ballet really the boy going, “Ooh, I touch the mirror behind the throne!”
Me: No, it was, “I have the magic power of completing the shiny jigsaw puzzle!”
Him: Why was there a dance with gypsies? How did that move the narrative forward?
Me: She needed someone to tell her where Kai was.
Him: Why didn’t the reindeer just do it himself?
Me: And spend half as much time prancing around? Oh, look, it’s the tube station. Picadilly home?
Him: Yeah, we’re at the dead time for the train.

(This refers to the performance that took place on Thursday, December 13th, which did not take forever but occasionally seemed like it was, especially … well, during the second and third acts.)

Ikrismas Kherol – The Young Vic

December 11, 2007

So – the South African Christmas Carol that I saw at the Young Vic last night (December 10th, 2007) was really good. The description is “set in modern South Africa, with Scrooge a woman who runs a mine.”

Well. The show opened with the “miners” in the “mine shafts” (the catwalks over the stage), clanging and stomping and singing as they finished off their shift, moving into a big central area for a mining pantomime, then heading “up the elevator” to the surface where they sang some more and danced and horsed around, jumping and slapping their boots and … well, the songs, they actually had that kind of “Working on the Railroad” sound to them, like actual mining songs, and while I’m sure miners don’t normally do any kind of synchronized dancing on payday, I loved the energy these guys had. I kept thinking, Billy Elliot, eat your heart out! This show was ten times more tuneful and had much better choreography.

That said, what I really liked about this show was its emotional impact. By setting it in a country where abuse of labor is much more free and poverty much more dire than, say, the US or the UK at present, Scrooge’s selfishness and indifference to others was thrown into much higher relief. At home, someone who says they’d rather not give money to pay a child’s school expenses because “people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford them” wouldn’t actually be condemning said child to not go to school; someone who refused to give to a charity kitchen and said that it would be better that the poor should die “and decrease the surplus population” would be seen as being tacky but not leading to other people’s deaths through his or her inaction. (In some cases, I think, this sort of person would just be the typical anti-tax, John Galt, “poor people are lazy” kind of person that thinks he’s actually quite moral and ultimately creating a better society through his “virture of selfishness.”)

But it was clear that in South Africa, without someone to pay the bills for medicine, sick people die in their beds, the poor (especially children) eat garbage until they starve, and prostitution – even if it leads to your own early death – may be the only way to get any of that damned, desperate money you need so very much just to get through to the next day. Did you throw women out of work so that you could sell the land their factory sits upon? Then you may have ruined all of their lives and that of their children and every single person who depended on them to get them a meal and shelter. Even if what you did was just the “free market” acting to “maximize revenue potential,” it was still immoral, and to say there was no reason for you not to do it because “it’s enough for a man to understand his own business” doesn’t excuse it. Invisible hand, my ass.

Sadly, it’s been the Victorian setting of all of the “Christmas Carol”s I’ve seen in the past that kept Scrooge as just a curmudgeon in my eyes rather than a person whose claim that “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s” covers a genuine black hole in his heart. When you look at everyone who’s not as rich as you, who’s not as well-dressed, well-spoken or well-educated as you, and say, “That person, their fate has nothing to do with me, and it’s not my business to try to effect any difference in their life even if it might be in my power to do so,” you are spreading a selfish evil through the world and failing to recognize the web that connects all of us.

At any rate, the story telling power and musical prowess of last night’s Christmas Carol was truly amazing. I was exhilirated and moved, and I stood and clapped my heart out at the end, which I almost never do because I’ve seen lots of theater and it usually doesn’t touch me like this did. Get up and go see it, watch the “Christmas Present” scene of people dancing at at street party in the township, and tell me your view on this story has not been permanently changed.

Herge’s Adventures of Tintin at the Playhouse – Saturday, December 8

December 9, 2007

Okay, er, I’m having a hard time writing about Tin Tin, or, more properly, Herge’s Adventures of Tintin, which I saw last night at the Playhouse (which I think has been showing Dirty Dancing or something for a while). Josh and I started out the night a bit buzzed, him because he’d spent the afternoon in a pub, me because he bought me a vodka lemonade before the show started (yay!). As we sat there tossing them back in the basement bar of the theater, I saw a cute little white dog being led toward the stage. “Why, that’s Tin Tin’s dog!” I said, but, of course, since I know nothing about the show I had no idea what his name was. And, well, you know, don’t I just know nothing about Tin Tin – some French cartoon character with a blonde cowlick and a white dog and a taste for the exotic as filtered through the eyes of, I don’t know, the ’30s. But we were looking for light entertainment, so this sounded like about the right ticket (ha ha) especially since the panto at the Barbican was running 30 quid per (gah!, no wonder the Evening Standard and Metro were both going on about “posh Panto”).

The theater itself was gorgeous, with gilded plaster cow skulls (not sure how this works historically) and lovely golden goddesses holding up the lighting equipment. The lights went up and … it was Tin Tin, sitting on a beach chair, with the cute little white dog on his lap! Then there was a big dance number, with singing and trumpets (the whole thing was very surreal), which showed Tin Tin exchanging the real dog for a stuffed one, tossing it off stage, and getting in return … a pudgy little man dressed mostly in white but wearing a horrid blond Afro wig. This was better than the dog?

The rest of the show was … well, is it unfair to call it cartoony? There wasn’t any acting taking place, no character evolution, just movement toward the end of the plot. Occasionaly there were more surreal song and dance numbers (such as when the dog got drunk – don’t ask me how he got the lid off without opposable thumbs, or even fingers – and when “The Captain” got altitude sickness), and one genuine bit of stage magic (when a dead woman “awoke” – I jumped and a little girl in about the fourth row started crying). But … well, Josh fell asleep at one point, and I was mostly more concerned about what had happened to the dog than what had happened to any of the characters, or was going to happen to them. I guess if you’re going to take your kids out to see a show over the Christmas season, it would be far better for them to see this than Mary Poppins, though clearly I damn with my faint praise. Me, I just kept wishing “Snowy” would shut up and be more like Puss was on Friday night – sexy as all get out and QUIET (other than his meows). Happily, the dog did appear in the final scene, but I’ll never know for certain how he spent the intervening two hours.

This show did make me think that I’ve finally detected a theme in London plays this years. Yes, indeed, folks, ignore the Chinese calendar – 2007 is the year of the Monkey! (It’s not the year of the severed head as I was thinking it might be – the year is almost over and I’ve only seen two, though I did also get two hangings in a month.) There was the great “Monkey on a Pedestal” scene in Drowsy Chaperone, the King Kong critter in Dick Whittington, and then the “Abominable Snowman” of Tin Tin! It was CLEARLY a reimagined monkey suit, but since the show was nearly over, I was willing to forgive it any and all – and it did look a bit like a cartoon of a Yeti.

Dick Whittington and His Cat – Hackney Empire

December 7, 2007

I decided to attack my sour mood today with a strong dose of Panto. So off to the Hackney Empire I went – rushing a bit (albeit unnecessarily) to make a 7 PM start time.

The theater was sadly only half full (especially when you consider the rave writeup it got in the Metro this morning), and we were berated a bit for not cheering loudly enough (“You paid your money, you’ll might as well try to enjoy yourself, it’ll get you out of here sooner”) and laughing at the appropriate moments (I’m sorry, a pun on “Black Pearl”/Blackpool Tower is a bit lost on me). But the singing was very much on key, if too much toward the moderne style that I dislike so much (I don’t know, does it really keep the kiddies coming?), there was a fair bit of fun dancing (I have to say the extremely skinny four year old was cracking me up), as well as garish costumes, sexual innuendo, and actors cracking each other up.

There was an undersea dance number featuring a clownfish sculpture that was so heart felt I felt it should be called “Finding Emo.” I really don’t know how spending time in Neptune’s Kingdom fit into the legend of Dick Whittington, but then, since I’m American, it might just be one of those rather obvious things I hadn’t noticed (like the fact it’s the Tower Bridge that’s the coolest looking Olde Fashioned bridge in London, not the London Bridge).

And there were MONKEYS. A whole scene, I tell you, on “Monkey Island,” with a giant, King-Kong style puppet. And there was a ship that floated across the stage, split, and sunk; and a transmorgrifying fairy that turned from a smallish human into a tiny doll that was pulled up from the stage into the balcony on a string. It all basically made no sense at all (this cannot be considered a spoiler) and I had tears trickling out the corners of my eyes during the very first scene. W and I had a great time and I consider the evening a grand success.

(Oh, and I should mention, both the Cat (fabulous dancing; spoke only in “meows”) and King Rat (in leather trouser and knee-high boots) were VERY sexy – three times as much as short-skirted Principal Boy Dick, who sang fine and had a great and chipper attitude but was sadly not allowed the benefit of a leather costume.

Bitchslapped by God at the Drillhouse

December 7, 2007

Wednesday evening got off to a rather stressful start when I went to get some money for dinner and realized I’d very much like to be paid tomorrow, if not yesterday, but thankfully, Miss Booklectic repaid her theater ticket in yummy food for me (Ooze; on Goodge Street, a risotto restaurant and clearly the best named joint I’ve seen in ages) so I was covered.

Then it was off to The Drill Hall for Bitchslapped by God. Well, perhaps it might have been a good show, and I think the actor (Everett Quinton) was more than competent, but watching him play, I don’t know, some eight different characters, plus dancing puppets doing a jazz Nutcracker, animated dolls re-enacting some kind of Snidely Whiplash/Polly Pureheart drama, and a trio of cutout faces which he used to play a series of elves having a chat with Mrs. Claus was just a bit overwhelming. He went too quickly from one charactter to the next (just basically turning around and addressing the air where he was just standing) and wasn’t really capturing the differences between the “characters.” It was some kind of anti-war thing (black helicopters snatching away participants in the Million Santa March), but … well, it just wasn’t coherent. Or interesting. In fact, I was kind of dozing off. When intermission rolled around, I dashed away as quickly as I could, feeling guilty about leaving booklectic behind, but … well, closing eyes are a sure sign it’s time to call it a night.

Tonight I’ll be seeing Dick Whittington at the Hackney, and I’m very much hoping I’ll get in a much more Christmas-cheery mood.