Archive for July, 2008

Little House on the Prairie – the musical?

July 29, 2008

I’m always hoping that there will be a new musical to add to the pantheon of stars, but I’m not sure how I feel about Little House on the Prairie. I guess in some ways it will come down to the music, won’t it? At least for once it’s a plot and character driven production instead of something with lots of special effects (not that I don’t enjoy that but it certainly isn’t what makes Oklahoma great), and I think something with a strings-based orchestra could be really nice. Hmm … wonder if I can get a copy of the soundtrack? Since it’s being produced in Minnesota, I expect this might be a bit of a trick.

Preview of August: a month in theater

July 28, 2008

Shockingly, there are several days left to July and I have not a single show in store. That said, I do have some things scheduled for August, but not much yet due to going out of town a few times. (It’s summer, what can I say, I hear the call of the sea.)

August Theater Plans
5 (Tuesday): Wizard of Oz at the Royal Festival Hall. This is a birthday present and I’m looking forward to it! UPDATE: This was miserable.
6 (Wednesday): Pygmalion at the Old Vic. Hey, better late than never, and you can’t get much later than closing week. What’s amusing is that I actually won tickets to this show early in the run, but it was on a night when I was hosting a party so I couldn’t go. Ah well. I’m sure it will be much better now that the Old Vic’s lack of AC will be heating up the action on stage that much more. UPDATE: Brilliant, too bad it’s closed now.
12 (Tuesday): Three-Penny Ring Cycle at the National Theatre. It’s one act, it’s musical, it’s based on two classics, what’s not to love? UPDATE: Bah, we were rained out, or had a rain delay, so we got refunds and went home.
13 (Wednesday): All-male Mikado at the Union Theatre (Southwark). This will mean I’ve seen the Mikado twice this year, but the Union Theatre has won my heart and thus will get me to make the bet this one will have ten times the charm of the first. UPDATE: Bah again, this was sold out. Why didn’t I buy my tickets sooner?
15 (Friday): West Side Story at Sadler’s Wells. They’re about the cheapest seats I could get but they’re still a lot – but I’ve never seen this before and it had to happen.
23 (Friday): Naughty cabaret at The Roundhouse. With friends. Naughty friends.

Also, I’m aiming to fit in the Victorian Music Hall thing at Wilton’s and Into the Hoods – it should make for a busy month all in all even though eight shows makes me feel like I’m kind of sleepwalking my way through it.

Review – “They’re Playing Our Song” – Menier Chocolate Factory

July 27, 2008

I was quite intrigued by what I would find on my first visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory. Facility-wise, I’d heard them trashed many times by the West End Whingers (and since I don’t actually have other friends who go to see theater as much as I do, this was the only view I had to go on) … but show-wise, I’d noticed that the Menier seems to have a record for picking hot shows that go on to bigger and better places (and longer runs, i.e. Dealer’s Choice) … and win big fat prizes (Sunday in the Park with George,” Oliviers and more). So I was excited to finally check out the space, but also to see the venue strutting its stuff as the place where musicals, new or neglected, take their baby-steps before going on to bigger things. They’re Playing Our Song did not constitute a debut, but rather was marking its first London revival since it opened (thanks to ColouredLights for the hot tip). I mean, God, 1982, that’s a long time for a show to not be on stage in a theater town like this.

Then again … some times shows don’t get revived for good reasons. My big advance warning was – well, it’s embarasing, but _ it was the name Neil Simon on the credits (as script author). WHAT WAS I THINKING? I have read many of his shows, and I’ve got to say, I just can’t stand his writing style. Wooden, clunky, predictable – he writes like he’s creating sitcoms. Everything is right there in your face, the characters have whimsical flaws, there are some jokes thrown in (my favorite being the one about the dress from Pippin), there’s a happy ending, bleh. For me, it’s like eating lunch from McDonalds: sure, it’s food, but are you going to sit around afterwards thinking about what you just ate? Hardly. (I think the English equivalent is Alan Aykborn, who seems to have crapped out as many shows as Mr. Simon has. I mean, really, you see Pinter and start thinking all of the writers here are blazing geniuses, but it’s just not true. I guess someone’s got to write dull old stuff that works for people who have to be talked out of spending a night in front of the television, but me, I want something that makes me excited about being in a theater and willing to spend an hour or two talking about it afterwards. No luck with this.) I felt pain for the actors watching them mouth out this dreck. Were they feeling it any more than I was? I was not convinced.

My experience of actually watching the show was fairly pleasant, though (something which I’m finding a bit embarrassing in retrospect). The leads (Connie Fisher, who’s name I found familiar for some reason, possibly the same as Phillip Whinger although perhaps I was thinking Connie Frances) and Alistair McGowan (no bells ringing there – sorry, guy) had some pretty good chemistry, despite their cheesy 70s hairstyles and clothes and, er, less than convincing command of New Yawk American English. (Connie’s accent was just gratingly heavy and off throughout, though rather like a typical American actor’s failed New Yawk-ese; McGowan’s was smooth enough but when he got out of bed and said “Good mo’ning” or something along those lines, it was just as painful as if he’d pronounced the H in herb). There was a lot of production fun-ness, like the disco dancers in the restaurant scene, the drivable piano, and the silly outfits Fischer wore (McGowan’s were hideous but not as over the top as hers), and, really, I did enjoy watching their relationship progress and got a little emotionally invested in their success (career-wise and as a couple).

But … the songs. While they fit with the show (no surprise), I got absolutely no hint that this was a musical about two people who were pop rock geniuses (or “genii,” if you prefer). The lyrics weren’t memorable, and the tunes weren’t hummable. There was an utter lack of pop magic! What a contrast with Annie Get Your Gun, with its embarassment of riches (seriously, just WHEN do you walk into a musical and find you already know all of the songs?). I actually found myself sitting in the theatre, kneecaps jammed into my femur, thinking not of the permanent loss of mobility I expected as a tragic result of watching this show from the second to last row (perfect view of the stage, but only ten inches clearance between the edge of the seat and the back of the bench in front of me – picture of injuries sustained upon exit here), but rather pining away for Avenue Q and its endless series of wonderful musical nuggets (“Schadenfreude,” “It Sucks to be Me,” “The Internet is for Porn” – when was the last time I went to a show and could name so many songs that I had, in fact, only heard for the first time?) As I sit here writing this, I can’t remember one song from this show (other than maybe a hint of the title tune, which is thankfully fading fast), and I’m the kind of person who sits singing showtunes in my house when I’m in a happy mood, so I consider this a major failure in a musical.

So They’re Playing Our Song was a mixed bag for me – boring dialogue, forgettable songs, but decent performances and entertaining enough while I was sitting there with a friend who loves musicals. (Do bring water if it’s over 20 C outside as you will be melting, and forget eating in the restaurant beforehand – it’s a sauna!) But, really, if you haven’t seen Avenue Q yet and you’re a musical theater fan, go see it instead. When it comes to adding to your lifetime treasury of wonderful shows, They’re Playing Our Song isn’t going to put a penny in your account, and since there’s shows out there that will, I highly advise going to see them instead. Me, I will happily fly Air Menier again, as it’s a great space for shows (aside from our row, which I noticed the other six people abandoned after the interval), but I’m hoping next time I find a bit more gold while I’m sifting through the sand.

(This review is for a matinee preview performance that took place Saturday, July 27th.)

Review – Giselle – Mikhailovsky Ballet at the London Coliseum 2010

July 26, 2008

I’ve realized there’s little point in posting a review of a show that’s already finished up as most people look for them to help determine whether or not to go, but I will say just a bit about this show, sparing you the details about trying to find someone to go with me when my date for the evening said, “But … but … I totally forgot about you buying me those tickets for my birthday!” (Grr!)

Last night we saw the Mikhailovsky Ballet performing Giselle at the London Coliseum, part of a five night/three show visit by this group. I’m not sure if they’ve ever been to London before, but I was pretty eager to check them out … I’ve enjoyed the visits by the Bolshoi and was quite sad when I found out they weren’t coming to London this summer. The prices were quite high (again), so I decided against seeing more than one show, but I’ve noted that they’ve had tickets available at the half price booth everyday so some concessions have been made to keeping ticket costs in the breathable part of the atmosphere. I guess part of the issue is also that the Coliseum is really just such a barn – it’s hard to fill every seat, and, really, many of them aren’t that good; still, I suspect there are far few crappy seats at the Coliseum than there are at the Opera house (and let me tell you, when they say “standing room, restricted view,” they mean “enjoy the music because for between 60 and 40 percent of the time, that’s all you’re getting). The Coliseum also just has more damned seats, but this is good as it means less sell outs (which is how I wound up in lame standing side seats at the ROH).

At any rate, due to having most of the rest of the week booked (notice the near daily postings here, and, truth be told, I’m actually a day behind as I’ve already seen another show but not had time to write about it yet), Giselle was the winning show. I had seen this done by the Cuban National Ballet in Seattle some years ago and loved it; the story is quite fun (young girl falls in love with prince and then dies of a broken/faulty heart; ghost of young girl finds prince in wood and tries to KILL KILL KILL him – or something close enough to that, basically act two has evil fairies, which is enough for me to love the show) and the music is good. The surviving 19th century ballets are really just quite good and since every company plays them differently, it never gets old to see them (especially when they have great scores).

The show starred Anastasya Matvienko, who is apparently famous. I, of course, didn’t know her, because I am not up to date on dancers around the world; I just try to learn the ones in the local groups. She was really just extremely good – light hearted and lovely as a young woman; beautiful and powerful as a Wili (evil fairy). I was really amazed by how expressive she was with her feet – watching her dance during the second half, after the prince has been caught by the Wilis, was really impressive. She also brilliantly captured the “mad scene” after the prince’s identity (and non-availability) was revealed. Suddenly with her big eyes and her thin face she looked every bit the broken hearted, out of control, sickly teenaged girl who really just wasn’t going to make it past the end of act one. So Matvienko pulled off the thing I rarely see in Russian dancers – great acting married to the (expected) excellent technique – and she didn’t show off so much that it distracted from the story being told. I applaud her, and add this: I could not take my eyes off of her when she was on stage. What a treat!

She was paired with Denis Matvienko, who did a good job of being both arrogant, fearful, and, finally, tender and loving. His bravado leaps in the first act (which I always tend to think of as “showing off to the girl to prove how virile he is”) were high and sharp, including the ones with the half-turn in the air (God, can I please talk to somebody who can actually help me learn more about ballet so I can describe what’s going on with the right words?), but he also seemed to really understand how his dance conveys character and situation, so when he’s being forced to dance by the Queen of the Wilis (Oksana Shestakova), the smoothness and, well, lack of passion in his dancing – a bit hard to convey when you’re also trying to show that you’re being forced to dance very hard – really nicely conveyed the idea of being bewitched. Good on you, Denis, and as a side note, very nice work by Roman Petukov in the role of the the man who does have to dance himself to death. Actually, I’m a bit amused, because both Giselle and “The gamekeeper” die, but instead of feeling moved at the tragedy, instead I was excited by how good their dancing was. It seemed morbid, but, what can I say, I loved watching them and they gave great performances!

Anyway, in short: gorgeous. My only complaint is the lighting design – it was irritating to watch the dancers walk from light into shadow when merely going across the stage, and some places in which the dancers were standing were positively dark. The follow spot operator also did a poor job of keeping the light on the person who was the center of attention in any given scene, something which would have helped overcome the deficiencies in the lighting of the set. And, truth be told, I preferred the choreography that the Ballet Nacional de Cuba used, which had much more forceful Wilis – I just didn’t get the kind of shivers up my spine that I did when watching theirs (though I was happy to say goodbye to the cheesy 70s sets). That said, I am sorry I am not going back to see the triple bill tomorrow but my wallet failed to make the grade. With luck we’ll see them again next year!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 25th, 2008.)

Review of the opera Monkey: Journey to the West– Royal Opera House

July 25, 2008

NOTE: This show is being remounted from November 8th until December 5th at “Monkey’s World,” near the Millenium Dome. Number to call is 0844 847 1665 – which is probably Ticketmaster or something. More info here.)

What is the point in reviewing a sold out show? It can’t influence anyone to go, since it’s not possible; for those who’ve made the commitment, any critique isn’t much welcomed; for those who’ve had no luck getting tickets, praise simply rubs the salt in the wound. But with its back history for me (a year long build up!), Monkey still must have its time in the sun – and space online.

Ever since I read about the opera version of Monkey: Journey to the West I’ve been burning with desire to go. I read the book in college (as part of my Chinese lit studies), then went on to see many versions of it – marionette (at the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle), animated, Kabuki (in Tokyo, an excellent show at the Kabuki-za), shadow puppet – it’s just an incredibly popular tale. (Sadly I never caught the t.v. show, but since it wasn’t shown in the US, I think that’s to be expected.) I am a fan of the Monkey King and I love to watch his big blazing ego wreaking havoc, especially if there is a little bit of kung-fu involved. And even though I thought I knew the story, every time I watch it seems there’s another aspect of the fairy tale I’ve missed out on. There are, it seems, an endless number of demons to be fought and gods of both heaven and hell waiting to have their noses tweaked, and Monkey does it all with panache. Who wouldn’t want to see his tale told on stage?

Unfortunately, last year’s performances all took place while I was off at a family reunion, so there was no way for me to see it, to my regret. However, when the Royal Opera put a teensy tiny ad on their site saying they were going to be presenting it this summer, I was all over it – signed up on the email list and waiting, waiting, and checking for news of when the show would happen. The day the tickets went on sale, I had already rounded up a group to go (though I could only buy four tickets), and I jumped when the bell rang to queue (online of course). At any rate – we got seats, ones I could almost afford (at £35 each in the balcony – quite steep and as it turns out with a blocked view of the climax of one of the two best scenes), and then just had to wait until the day finally rolled around.

Yesterday was, at long last, the day. What was I expecting? All I really knew is that it was going to be bright and shiny and had design work by the guy who’d done Tank Girl (Jamie Hewlett). I’d forgotten it was sung in Mandarin (a big plus for me but probably not so awesome for the youngest members of the audience) but I’d also forgotten that it was going to have lots of martial arts (yay!). In addition, there were lots of traditional Chinese performance arts on display, such as plate balancing, cloth spinning, and balancing/acrobatics. There were also what I think as more Western-style circus performances, such as rope suspension (like trapeze work – I don’t know exactly what it’s called) and a contortionist. Really, it was a smorgasborg of shiny fun things to look at, and the sets were big and “wow” (except for the part where from at least row G on up in the upper amphitheater you couldn’t see the occasional top fifth of the stage, meaning Buddha’s head was cut off in the final scene and when Monkey was fighting Princess Iron Fan, I was utterly unable to see how he won the fight). I was, however, not expecting the show to run straight through with no intermission; fortunately I heard the annoucement beforehand and was able to make a dash for the ladies’ before I went in the auditorium.

The show was pretty fun. I especially enjoyed the scene in the underwater palace of the Dragon King and the, er, lair of the “Spider Queen” slash web women (in which women acrobats were hanging from the ceiling from red silk scarves trying to trap the pilgrims in their web/cloth and thus luring them into sexual misdeeds – apparently done as a movie by the Shaw brothers in the 60s). However …

For a show with so much buildup, it may have been impossible to satify my expectations. That said, I found the narrative incoherent and saw little connections between the major sections of the show. This meant each section needed to be brilliant on its own, and most of them were quite fun to watch … but without the pieces knitting together, you are denied the opportunity to create a greater whole. The effect is more like watching a bunch of music videos.

Furthermore, while the Monkey King is funny and irritating, why isn’t there more to the characterization of his companions? Really, why should we care about whether or not he helps Tripitaka? His companions Pigsy and Sandy were just ciphers and had almost no sense of personality at all, and while Sandy wasn’t much in the book, Pigsy was a real character and certainly deserved more than he got.

I also just hated the clumsy scene transitions. Whether it was the animated movies, which detracted from the possibility of using this time to develop the characters/story more and also cut of major opportunities to do theatrical magic (and gave me horrible flashbacks to being stuck at the crummy Fa Lun Gung “Chinese Arts Spectacular”), or the times when things just stopped dead and we got to watch people move stuff on stage (how anticlimactic! how secret-revealing!), this bit seemed incredibly unpolished, especially given that it’s been touring in China and America.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable evening, but my enjoyment was limited by the poor sight lines my £35 seats offered (which could and should have been designed around, that’s what technical rehearsal is for) and, er, this bit where the magic just wasn’t happening for me. It was fun and exciting and much more entertaining than opera normally is (and in terms of providing a spectacle, this show really succeeded – I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in the action on stage I didn’t bother reading the supertitles), but as a work of art, as something that might be the least bit emotionally moving, it was a failure, which was kind of sad.

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, July 24th.)

Review – Under the Blue Sky – Duke of York’s Theatre

July 23, 2008

Last night I went with the WestEnd Whingers and crewe to see “Under the Blue Sky” at the Duke Of York’s theater.

Ostensibly this should segue right into a review of a show, but I have to pause and take a moment to praise the company. To go see a show with the Whingers means that, for once, I am surrounded by a crowd of people who can talk really intelligently about theater. By this, I don’t mean “namedrop famous actors/productions they’ve seen” (God only knows a lot of people think that constitutes clever conversation on the topic), and I also don’t mean “try to top each other in snarkiness” (because while they will baste and roast a turkey when they find one, it’s the underlying enthusiasm for the medium that makes the conversation even possible). No, I mean they can talk about other shows, new ones worth seeing, old ones worth remembering, connecting them to other plays and other works of art … letting me listen, learn and participate in great conversation in a company of my peers (and beyond). Sue, CitySlicker, Helen, Phil, Andrew, Graham, Paul (the GWTW Twitter man) … spending the evening with you is like a dream come true for me.

Anyway, I was naughty and didn’t read anything about the show before I went. Basically, it had Catherine Tate in it, whom I’ve had a good time watching on YouTube (even though it’s frequently been in car crash mode – it’s embarrassing but I can’t turn away), and, well, I was invited to go by people I wanted to hang out with, so I just went for it. The day of I realized I didn’t actually even know what theater it was in! And when I got there, I had a “bad theater experience” flashback (rather like the ones caused by Fram nowadays) right before the show started, as I remembered struggling through almost two hours (so it seemed) of the first act of Rock and Roll with seven cups of tea crying for a quick departure from my body. I finally leapt over four or five other audience members to make it to an exit door during a between-scene dark bit (and there were rather a lot of them) and spending the rest of the act watching the play through a bit of scratched-off paint on a window while the assistant director whispered to me a summary of the dialogue.

Er, so, back to the show. Uhhh …. well, it’s about teachers shagging teachers, and it’s kind of funny in bits, but touching in others (I cried during the last scene and felt just horribly manipulated, even though I liked it), and it plays straight through with no interval. I’d find it okay to recommend to people in general, in a great deal because it knows when to stop – it’s not a bad night out, really.

But. (I’m sorry, I just can’t stop myself, I have to say more.) The play is … incoherent. It has three scenes that don’t really seem to have anything to do with each other, even though the playwright has ensured that the characters in scene one are mentioned in the subsequent ones. The acting in the first scene is wooden – Chris O’Dowd’s first lines read to me as, “Hi! I’m acting in a play and these are the words I am supposed to say!” And while I don’t know what his accent was supposed to be, it seemed kind of … fluid. Lisa Dillon seemed to jump more readily into her character, but for both of them I found neither their words nor their actions made any sense. There was a sense to the situation … but not their responses to it or to each other. They seemed just like people who existed only as words written on a page. Only the writer can ultimately take the blame for this. (That said, huge kudos to the both of the actors for actually succeeding in making chile on stage during a show. I could smell each of the ingredients cooking in the pan from my second row seats and it smelled good.)

The second scene was the big blow out (well, in terms of “what the audience came to see”) with Catherine Tate and some actor that wasn’t Catherine Tate (in the minds of the audience – but seriously, it was Dominic Rowan, who gets brownie points for conjuring up tears on stage). This was a sort of sex farce scene that cracked me up because, er, the one teacher I know in the UK public school system is really as much of a ballbreaker as Catherine Tate’s character was and it all just seemed too likely to be true. That said … as she got meaner and the guy got weaselier/creepier … I found myself not liking either of them. In fact, I wanted terrible things to happen to both of them just to spice up the scene. (I thought this during the first act, too.) Since neither of them really managed to seem real, it just didn’t matter to me what happened to them. I laughed at the crude bits and thanked God that actual nudity was never involved as it would have been Too Much, and while something terrible did happen, I was happy about it.

The final scene was for me the best part of the play, even though the long speech in the middle was, once again, completely unrealistic and took me out of the “lost in the show” mindset (and made me firmly aware of being at a play). Actorially speaking, we had two powerhouses: Francesca Annis (whom I had not previously seen but who held the stage … I mean, she just had it) and Nigel Lindsay (who smoked the Almeida in Homecoming and was quite charismatic in a rather limp production of Awake And Sing at the same theater). Lindsay was brilliant, utterly unselfconscious, perfectly in character, completely believable – I hung off of every word that came out of his mouth. His body language, everything was perfect for the character he was portraying. (And who knows, maybe the playwright understood this language better than that of the other characters he was creating dialogue for.) Watching him interact with Annis was a pleasure for me. That said … when they said that another character was dead, my feeling was actually one of relief, that I wasn’t going to have to see the rest of the wooden characters brought back on stage for some sort of horrible resolution (a la any number of cheesy movies) after the interval, but just instead could walk out of the theater with the show wrapped and on a bit of an up note.

Anyway, my summary is that this show was flawed but, still, not a bad night out, and, in fact, I think most people who would enjoy it wouldn’t really care about the stuff that bothered me. For the folks who are super diehards: it’s not a bad way to spend a free night, but, you know, there are likely to be other options. Try Brief Encounter first if you still haven’t been – it’s still the best thing on right now.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on July 22nd, 2008.)

Review – Singalonga “Hairspray” – Prince Charles Cinema

July 21, 2008

This is a guest review from K, who took a Saturday afternoon to go to the Prince Charles Cinema to check out the Singalonga version of the movie Hairspray
Sing-a-Long Hairspray at the Prince Charles

Apparently, “the first ever sing-a-long happened at an old people’s home in Inverness. The nurses wanted to involve the old people in an interactive group therapy and so screened Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and gave out song sheets so that everyone could sing-a-long”. A Sing-a-Long was then held at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in London in 1999 and subsequently ran at the Prince Charles Cinema, where it has found a permanent home. A global franchise has now developed: The Sound of Music is probably its signature show, but it also encompasses Joseph, Annie, Rocky Horror and now Hairspray. And soon, Abba.

Waiting outside the Prince Charles on Saturday afternoon, I could see that the audience for the show was going to be enthusiastic. A lot of them were wearing 1950s/60s outfits. Some of them were in costume as characters from the show. Almost all of them were female – this is apparently standard for the Sing-a-Longs. When we’d settled into our seats, we found the row behind us was mainly made up of pre-teens, which was reassuring. There are ten-year-olds who know all the words to Hairspray. That makes me very happy.

Before the film started, a cheerful and bossy woman in a wig told us what was in our plastic bags – a bell to ring during I Can Hear the Bells, a piece of sparkly fabric to wave during Welcome to the 60s, cards to hold up during Without Love, and so on. We had different noises to make when the different characters came on – wolf-whistles for Link, boos and hisses for the von Tussles and Penny’s mother, and so on. She made us stand up and practise our dance moves. I was glad I’d chosen my companion for the event carefully: P is, like me, a massive fan of Hairspray, and, not like me, an extrovert. He danced and waved and joined in, and I did too, but it took me a while to warm up to it all. It probably would have been easier at an evening showing after a couple of drinks.

There was a fancy dress competition – two in fact, one for adults and one for children – and then the film started. Watching a film in a Sing-a-Long atmosphere changes it, I found. You’re always waiting to join in. It’s now an interactive experience, not a passive one. After the first couple of numbers I started relaxing about it all, and I did enjoy singing along to everything. And dancing, although the amount of dancing you can do standing in a row of cinema seats is limited – I wonder what it would be like holding a Sing-a-Long in a nightclub? I even waved my various accessories, and the experience of holding up a placard saying ‘Integration not Segregation’ during I Know Where I’m Going was actually rather moving.

Ultimately, Hairspray is a great film, and being in a cinema full of other people who loved it and wanted to celebrate it was a feelgood experience. P and I came out smiling, although we admitted our feelings about the event were mixed. Maybe it would have helped to have had people at the front, as Rocky Horror does, to help us get in the mood. Maybe it felt a little too much like organised fun. I would definitely say that this is a show for people who have already seen the film and loved it – anything less and I think you’d feel out of place. I’d also suggest a couple of drinks beforehand. But maybe I’m just too English and introverted.

Review – Will Tuckett’s “Faeries” – Royal Opera House, Clore Studio

July 14, 2008

After trying for weeks to find a time when my only friend with a child could accompany me (with her daughter) to see Will Tuckett’s “Faeries”, I was delighted when I got a phone call offering me a pair of free tickets with no strings attached (other than that I not post my review until today). A lot of people wouldn’t perhaps just be wandering around central London with nothing to do an hour before curtain time, but there I was, and I was completely willing to drop everything and run over to the Royal Opera House to see a show … for free! (How did my friend know that I’d be likely to do that? I must have a reputation …)

I have to interrupt the rest of the review with the reason why getting this call meant so much to me. I had known about this show for four months and had been trying to buy tickets for it when they went on sale but was unable to come up with a day that worked … because the ROH required each party have a child in attendance and in all of London I am only aquainted with one child, who would have to be brought up from Worcester Park in order to allow me to attend the show. What is up with the ROH saying you need to have a child with you to attend? Are they worried that the show will attract pedophiles, or is this just a blatant attempt at discriminating against the childless? As a woman who does not have any children nor, indeed, any relatives in the entire country, I found this policy onerous and incredibly unfair to me, a childless person. It’s bad enough that I can’t sit down and have my lunch in Coram Fields, which is only a block away, but to be forbidden from attending an art event because I can’t access a child? In 10 years of attending puppet and children’s theater this has never been an issue before. If I want to attend, I should be allowed to attend, understanding that there will be many children in the audience (and frankly they were better behaved than MANY audiences I’ve been stuck in the middle of, especially at the ballet. Must we talk during the overture?). Otherwise, if they want to be sure a certain number or percentage of children attend, they should just reserve seats for them rather than forbidden adults, flat out, from attending without children.

Walking into the show I had little idea of what to expect. I was thinking: the guy who designed the really cool looking Wind in the Willows ballet! Fairies! The … er … guy who choreographed the Pinocchio ballet I didn’t care for so much … well, maybe I should forget about that bit. At any rate, I was pretty excited about seeing a brand new ballet, as I always am.

However, it had never occurred to me what the plot might actually be about. In this case, it was sort of a Railway Children story, about two London kids sent to the countryside during the war. The girl gets split up from her brother and winds up running around in the woods and fields … and of course meets fairies. She makes friends with one, gets caught by another, and eventually gets caught up in needing to defeat an evil fairy “who wants to steal our freedom” (or something like that).

Walking into the hall, the atmosphere was good … there were period-dressed “Station Agents” handing out identification tags to the kids, and on stage was a fairly large puppet playing an old woman telling the kids where to sit and hurrying them along (a nice way to establish the puppets as “people” early in the performance). We took a seat near the very back of the stage so we wouldn’t have to get shoved off to the side, as everyone that sat down in the middle was asked to move to the edge of the risers – a bit of a punishment for people who came in on time!

Though the human cast initially seemed to be around ten people, I think there were only 2 actual speaking human roles, and after Our Heroine ran off, it was really just her and a phalanx of people operating the puppets. Unlike bunraku (or even Avenue Q), the people manipulating the puppets were all dressed in period clothing, which distracted a bit from the action. I thought that the woman with a red and white band on her head was going to turn out to be a fairy queen, but eventually it seemed that she was, really, just a woman wearing a scarf knotted on her head as if she were cleaning the house. I did like the fact that the people manipulating the Evil Fairy were dressed as soldiers, but otherwise the clothing didn’t add to the narrative. I don’t think it put the kids off, though, so maybe I’m just too picky.

The puppets were, in my mind, the best thing about this show. They came in a variety of sizes and took full advantage of their ability to be free of the normal laws of gravity and, er, bodily coherence, that human actors are limited by. This, of course, made it easy for the fairies to fly (and levitate), but they could also just stand sideways, or have their heads and tails come off and go on their own adventures. I also loved the detailing of the smallest puppets, all little fairies. I wanted to just pop them in my pocket and take them home with me. (Nice work to whoever designed these – brilliant!) And they were actually handled as characters, with their own voices, movement styles, and emotions – important aspects in making an object take on life and make it possible to focus on the face of the puppet instead of the person who was speaking for it.

The dance, however, wasn’t particularly interesting, and I wonder if the kids liked it or even cared. The scene where Our Heroine was dancing with her fairy friend was good, but the parts where, perhaps, emotion was being expressed were … I don’t know, meaningless. To me, they didn’t add to the narrative and just weren’t interesting to watch – they just seemed obligatory. While I went to see the dance, because that is what I love, and I enjoyed the show, if I had been expecting to enjoy it because of the dance I would have considered this show a complete failure. However, I’m open to enjoying any theatrical experience on its own merits, and as I enjoyed the other aspects of the show quite a bit, I can’t say it was a bad show because the dance was bad/boring/unimpressive.

Note that the evil fairy was actually scary enough that he was making the kids in the audience cry. I’m curious if they were going to try to lighten him up or just roll with it. For really little kids, he could easily be the incarnation of bogeyman nightmares.

So, overall this wasn’t a bad show, but the degree of excitement I had about going to see it wasn’t really matched by what was presented on stage. That said, the children in the audience were really caught up in what was going on and didn’t complain or barely make a squeak for the entire 75 minutes, so clearly something is working well. If you’re taking a kid to this, they will probably enjoy themselves, but if you were feeling sad because the ROH didn’t want your childless presence at this show, cry no tears – there will be other shows you will probably enjoy more. Me, I’m going to have to question whether or not I want to see Will Tuckett’s shows anymore – this makes the second one I’ve seen that left me flat, and good puppetry just isn’t enough to console me for indifferent dance. I’d rather just see a straight puppet show and keep my expectations set appropriately. Speaking of which, the Metro has £10 off top priced tickets to see Monkey: Journey to the West (the opera!), though it’s only good on matinees for Thrusday July 24 (2:30 PM) and Friday July 25 (4 PM). I don’t have £65 to lay out on theater seats for any show, but if you do, book through the ROH website (www.roh.org.uk/monkeyjourney). Hopefully Monkey will be a show where my expectations are finally met!

Review – Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras – “Sabores” – Sadler’s Wells

July 11, 2008

When Booklectic and I (and others) went to Barcelona two months ago, we debated going to see a “Tablao de Flamenco” at the Poble Espanol, but were put off by the price (55 euros) and the fear of being stuck in a tourist trap. Me, well, I’ve seen what I consider to be some very fine flamenco, starting at the Barcelona flamenco bienalle of 2002, and I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing bad dance, so when Booklectic and I were thinking of fun things to do this summer, I said, “Hey, why don’t we finally see some flamenco at Sadler’s Wells? It’s pretty much guaranteed to be really good …”

Sara Baras in no way let me down. “Sabores” presented a variety of Flamenco styles, danced by her and her troupe of nine (or so) with seven musicians/singers accompanying. I am, alas, uneducated when it comes to the different styles, but what I saw was a variety of group unison dancing (which was reminding me a bit of Riverdance) and brilliant solos, two of which were performed by the ace male flamencos she had brought with her. (I’ll fill in the details when I have the program to refer to.) One of them did a dance with castanets – I found myself hanging on every percussive beat he was making – practically eating out of his hands! – while the other dressed in more of a caballero style, including with a hat and tan boots.

Baras herself carried much of the evening, and she does really have scintillating footwork, but also a strong dramatic presence. She is exactly what I expect of a flamenca – regal, straight-backed, serious, and sexy as all get out. She seemed to lean toward what seemed to me to be a more modern style, one that I think is suited to her personal aesthetic. There was a serious lack of red lipstick, haircombs, and big bangles or earrings on the women of the troupe. I did find it a bit sad that there was no dance done with the really long trailing skirt that the women whip around them, as I find it really hypnotizing and a great dance to watch – but instead, we got Baras in a black top with leather chaps on, WOW! In front it looked like (and moved like) a skirt, but in the back it showed off her strong legs.

The audience at Sadler’s Wells was very appreciative, starting out with some “Ole!”s, then moving to “Guapo!” when the men were dancing. Three quarters of the way in, they were just talking to the stage, mostly in Spanish, and the dancers were preening and parading and looking prouder and more excited and even occasionally talking back to the audience. The energy was really good. The musicians were clearly paying attention to every bit of what the dancers were doing, and even though quite a bit of it was stiff choreographed unison dancing (which I have never felt was very flamenco), there was still a lot of improv going on. The final hoedown was perhaps not as good as it could have been, if it was planned and not just a spontaneous reaction to the crowd’s enthusiasm – personally, I wanted to see the many corps dancers get their moment in the sun, since they barely seemed to have any solo work at all over the course of the entire evening. Overall, though, it was a not large complaint to make for what I found to be a very enjoyable evening.

A much bigger complaint: our dinner beforehand was at a restaurant called Tortilla and while their burritos are fine and their frozen margaritas most tasty, their tacos are an absolute disgrace. Even though they’d “double-bagged” them (two tortillas) and they actually used proper corn tortillas, all four of the tacos my husband and I ordered completely disintegrated before the third bite, the contents falling out of the bottom of the split and flaking “shell.” I know these were “soft” or street-style tacos, but in all my years of ordering off of taco trucks I’ve never seen such a shameful performance. Never again!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 10th.)

Review – Hairspray – Shaftesbury Theatre, London

July 10, 2008

Way, way back at the dawn of time (in the theater sense, so four months back), I was idly crusing LastMinute.com and saw they had 20 quid tickets for Hairspray. Hairspray! The show everyone I know loves and which never makes it to the TKTS booth! For twenty quid! Well, the sad thing was that in order to get these great tickets, I had to book waaaaay in advance, but I found four seats available on a night when Michael Ball was performing (that is, not on a Monday and before October 25th), invited two friends of mine to come with me and J, and … well, sat and waited for months and months for the big day to finally arrive.

This leads into last night, which was FINALLY spent watching Hairspray with Bathtubgingirl and Spikeylady (as well as, and of course, my husband). I can see that the hype has been, well, not just hype. The songs were really fun (I like the 60s musical style), the costumes were great, and the big dance scenes were awesome. I can now see why Booklectic has been again and again. Clearly she’s not the only one, as a plaid-shirted teenager a few seats over was singing along to the final number. I bet all of the actors in all of the other musicals on in London right now are wishing they could work in this show – the energy was really high and the quality of the performers was tops. It was, as ever, sold out. I hadn’t seen either of the Hairspray movies, but I’m glad I went into it knowing nothing, as it meant it was all one fun surprise for me. I could probably go on about it ad nauseum but there have been so many great reviews of it that I feel like I can’t add much more (and am, in fact, mostly just writing about it here to record that I finally went).

I’d like to add that this was the most amazingly fat-positive show I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean that it was about how gaining weight is great; it actually addressed the issues of anti-fat prejudice straight on, and had the message, “You can do it! Be yourself!” This was great. I mean, it’s one thing to be overweight and have health issues, but why should feeling like a failure be so much a part of the experience of being a fat person? Is it pleasant to hang out with people who hate themselves, or to feel that way about yourself? Wouldn’t you look up to, say, a person in a wheelchair who had a sunny attitude? And yet, if you remember highschool, “gimps” and “crips” got all sorts of hatred and attitude thrown their way. Hairspray had an immensely positive message about liking yourself as you are and not letting other people’s hatred get you down, and I really, really liked that. I must add … for my two girlfriends, who have issues about their weight, this was a GREAT play for them to see, and I just hope it can help them look in the mirror and see how gorgeous they are – because they are!

The play also dealt with (in a not heavy way) the issues of race at this time in history. I really liked seeing racism handled head-on, showing both the good and the bad and, well, just the fair amount of subtlety in terms of how the race issue existed/exists in America. Unfortunately none of the black characters really had a whole lot of dimensionality to them, but, well, I guess that doesn’t really reflect the author’s experience.

Anyway, if you’ve been holding off because you can’t get good priced seats … you’re going to probably still be waiting a while. On the other hand, if you think it’s not worth it … splash out, get floor seats, and I promise you a great night out at the best musical currently playing on the West End. Don’t miss it!