Archive for December, 2008

Review – The Nutcracker – New York City Ballet (Lincoln Center)

December 29, 2008

Two days before Christmas my husband and I went to Lincoln Center to see City Ballet’s Nutcracker, as choreographed by Balanchine himself. According to the program, Balanchine is the one who brought this ballet back into the modern story ballet repertoire and established it as the Christmas ballet of choice for all dance companies, and before he touched it, it has pretty much been unloved in forgotten*. What I was there to see, though, was not “The Nutcracker, as Envisioned by Mr. B. in the Great Revelation Which He Shared with America,” but rather yet another take on one of my favorite story ballets (most of the versions I see credit Petipa as being the originator of their choreography), one which has millions of different possible combinations of how to handle the music. I’ve seen Kent Stowell’s (at Pacific Northwest Ballet), Matthew Bourne’s, English Ballet’s, Arizona Ballet Theater’s, and a few others I can’t remember right now. I love the way all of these different choreographers and dance companies take something which I sort of think doesn’t have a lot of flexibility (the music stays the same and there’s always the Hoffman story behind it all) and makes completely different ballets – in my mind, at least.

City Ballet’s Nutcracker is most notable, in my mind, for the fact that rather than having Clara turn into an adult before she goes into the fantasy world (where the various Suite dances take place), a child is present throughout in the role – which limits the dancing she can do, as you’ll never get anywhere near the same quality of dancing from an 8 or 10 year old as a 24 year old! (She’s also called “Marie” instead of Clara – how did that happen? – and was performed by Maria Gorokhov.) This also limits the emotional intensity of the role – it’s not about her coming into adulthood, it’s dancing about an 8 year and her toys and fantasies. This is not intrinsically interesting and, I think, diminishes the overall potential of the ballet substantially.

That said, there are things to enjoy about the first act, primarily the costumes and the charm of the young dancers (and some fun scenery as a scrim is used to hide the living room, the first time I’ve ever seen this done – the children stand in front of a door and peer in the keyhole, and the lights go on behind the scrim so we can see what they are looking at). This half of the Nutcracker follows a more or less normal “plot,” with boys and girls (and adults) showing up for a party at Marie’s parent’s house, Marie being given a Nutcracker, and the inevitable fight between the boys with their war toys and Marie (and the girls) which results in the Nutcracker being injured, a “growing Christmas tree” and rat/mice versus Nutcracker battle.

City Ballet’s also has a dance for other toys that Drosselmeier brings with him, in this case a toy soldier (Austin Laurent) and a “Harlequin and Columbine” pair (Erica Pereira and Brittany Pollack). There is also a new character, the nephew of Drosselmeier (played by Joshua Shutkind), who is kind to and solicitous of Marie (and later becomes the spirit animating the Nutcracker when we move on to the dream sequence). Marie falls asleep on a couch and the story transitions into the dream sequence, of which the most notable thing was the multi-headed rat king. Once the Nutcracker has defeated him, his crown is given to Marie, and the set is swept away to a snowy wonderland (no idea why) where Marie and the Nutcracker appear to be royalty of some sort and hordes of ballerinas come out to dance as snowflakes while white bits fall from the ceiling. This last bit was pure theatrical magic, although I was a bit worried that the ballerinas were going to slip on the “snow.”

The second half follows the conceit that the ballet is taking place in the “Land of Sweets,” but all of the traditional names for the solos have been changed. The Arabian (or Peacock in Stowell’s version) dance is now “Coffee,” the Chinese dance is “Tea,” the Russian dance is Candy Canes – where did this come from? I was put off my the peculiar choices here. On the other hand, the freaky woman with the giant skirt I hadn’t seen since Ballet Arizona made an appearance, and I got a huge laugh watching the little kids come out from under her skirts and dance on stage. Thanks to Justin Peck for being this ballet’s panto dame (Mother Ginger, to be accurate) – I really enjoyed his clowning and hamming. We also got a nice Waltz of the Flowers, with the flowers in lovely tiered full skirts in increasing intensity of pink that poofed up gorgeously as they swirled around. Aaah!

Unfortunately, I was rather checked out for Teresa Reichlen and Charles Askegard’s performance in the final duet of “The Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier.” But I don’t think it was just me worrying about the bills piling up during this trip; it was the rather uninspired choreography in all of the show leading to its ultimate, well, canned duet. I just wonder what was going on for Balanchine – to me, it felt like he just wasn’t very excited about this show and didn’t want to make it a showcase for outstanding dancing – he just wanted to move the narrative along. I wonder if the music didn’t inspire him enough, or if he was in a hurry, or if there was something else going on – but when I think of the incredible things he was doing at this time and earlier, I feel like he forgot to care about the Nutcracker enough to make it a great dance piece. So, overall, while I found this an entertaining enough evening, I left disappointed. Balanchine was not only not able to make the first act any better than almost anyone else (only Bourne has excelled here), but he didn’t even make the second act brilliant like I think he had the ability to do. Ah, well – at least the music was great, and with luck, I’ll be able to see City Ballet more than once in ten years and get a better choice of shows the next time.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 6 PM on Tuesday, December 23rd, 2008.)

*Note the Wikipedia article on the Nutcracker completely blows this assertion out of the water. What is up with this obsessive worship of Balanchine? Is City Ballet incapable of accepting the fact that things have gone on in ballet during the time he was choreographing that didn’t involve him, that other influences were moving ballet forward at the same time? No wonder I came to the UK being ignorant of Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan!

Review – The Klezmer Nutcracker – Vital Theater Company, New York City

December 24, 2008

On Monday night three of us went to the Vital Theater company to see the Klezmer Nutcracker. It was an amazingly packed theater – while it seats about 100, there were extra kids in laps and even one person sent to sit in the lighting booth! What had the crowd a-hopping? It was a “winter holiday” play that for once was NOT about Christmas – not about Santa, not about Scrooge, not about little drummer boys – it was about a Jewish family and THEIR traditions, and based on the reactions of the audience, they were as pleased to see representations of themselves and their lives on stage as I am when I get a real “American meal” in London (such as Vietnamese soup that tastes like it did back home).

What it is NOT is “a Jewish retelling of the Nutcracker,” even though it follows some of the themes of that story (the family party, the conflict between the brother and sister) and has an occasional background of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” done Klezmer style (by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra) and a bit of dancing. The story it’s based on is Ellen Kushner’s Golden Dreidel, and the plot (of the play) is like this: a pre-teen girl (Sara, performed by Danielle Strauss) and her family are gathered for Hanukkah. A wild auntie blows in (played by Ellen Kushner) and gives her a golden dreidel as a Hanukkah present, explaining a bit of its symbolism. Sara and her brother fight over it, and it breaks … the TV screen, landing all of the kids in hot water.

This is where things get odd. Sara has been yearning for magic and adventure, and the Dreidel appears to have a key to both, transporting her to another land where she is quickly saddled with a mission and a companion or two. At this point I started feeling like the play was a bit of a middle ground between Nilsson’s “The Point” and Frank Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” – there was a message or two in the show, but it was being sent out in a fun way that didn’t impede the story.

It’s a little hard for me to change gears from reviewing hardcore theater like August: Osage County to a smallish production done on a shoestring budget like this one, so I’ll try to get into the right mindset: it was a cute show that both the adults and the kids in the audience got a real kick out of, with lots of silly jokes in it, perfectly aimed at 6-12 year olds but not boring for grownups.

Me, I liked the puppets and loved the peacock dance (also a holdover from the original Nutcracker), but didn’t feel like the actual dancing added much to the show; fortunately there wasn’t too much of it even though it was far more competently executed than I expected. I thought the acting was okay, but more importantly the rapport created between the actors and the audience was really very good: the kids were really listening and got very involved in the bits where participation was asked for. And at the end, when people were asked to sing along to a Hanukkah song, they really got into it, and I thought, wow, look, it’s their songs, they’re finally at a show where it’s representing what they are doing this time of the year, and that has really got to feel good. (I of course didn’t know the songs, but I didn’t mind – I get the songs I know all of the time.) So while the show isn’t likely to hit the list of Tony nominees, I think there’s a lot of people out there who would really enjoy it. Me, it was an hour, I got to enjoy some theater magic (like the bits where Sara and “The Fool” (Dan J Gordon) were swimming a sea), listen to some bad jokes, and hear some new music – so I think it was over all a good night out. Add a scoop of gelato from Grom (right across the street) and you have a very nice night out

(This show was for the 7 PM performance on the night of Monday, December 22nd, 2008.)

Review – Phil Willmott’s musical “A Christmas Carol” – King’s Head Theatre

December 17, 2008

PLEASED TO SAY THIS REVIEW IS GENERATING PERSONAL ATTACKS ON ME! And thanks for visiting the review of last year’s production of A Christmas Carol. Here’s what I had to say in 2008:

Friday night I went to the official opening of the musical “Christmas Carol” that’s taking place through January 4th at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. A friend was involved in it and thus I had a bit more awareness than usual about this show – I’d had a peek at the script a few weeks earlier and was almost talked out of going by the use of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” as a sung bit. Still, I had a friend visiting me that night, and she was up for seeing the show with me (and supporting said mutual friend), so off we went.

I’d never seen a show in a pub before, even though I know it’s a fairly common thing in London. The theater, all the way behind the bar (on the main floor), was really small (eighty or so seats) with rather low ceilings. It was also completely jammed with performers – at least twenty were on the stage, in the aisles, or standing off to the sides, chatting and playing musical instruments. It was amazing how full of humanity the little theater was. Still, sightlines in the middle section were good, and I figured with my glass of mulled wine I was sure to be good through an hour and a half no matter what they threw at me.

The trope for this show is that Charles Dickens is trying to sell his publisher on this new book idea of his that he thinks will be incredibly popular (and make money), and he starts telling him the story that is “A Christmas Carol” in a pub in Victorian England, with the idea that if he can capture this audience, his story will surely sell well. This is all good and fine, except … well, I don’t give a rat’s ass about Charles Dickens as a person. Furthermore, I’d just been to the Dickens museum, and the false historical references (his previous novels being a failure and him being any way in financial straights when he wrote “A Christmas Carol”) really irritated me. Please! He was an established, well-to-do writer when he cranked out “Christmas Carol!” My friend was also going nuts because the costumes were a complete hodge-podge of pseudo-Victoriana (and she used to be a costume designer – how was I to know?). The bigger problem for me was that this story doesn’t NEED a framing device – it’s fine all on its own – and the time spent with Dickens took away from the story itself. (Note: Charlie Anson was totally hot, but that’s not the point. If I wanted to ogle him, I’d see him in … hmm … Equus … well, okay, a different show. What plays feature male actors taking it all off besides Equus? I must not be getting out enough to not be able to answer that question quickly. Anyway …)

Historical accuracy having been set aside, would the story at least be followed somewhat faithfully? Well … in my mind, no. I’ve seen a version of “A Christmas Carol” pretty much annually since I saw the Annex Theater version in Seattle some years ago (the one with the positively evil Tiny Tim), and the story isn’t as flexible as this production imagined it might be. To start, Scrooge (a delightfully curmudgeonly Mark Starr) gives no speech about the poor needing to make more of an effort to die, thus “decreasing the surplus population” – a sentiment which I’ve heard expressed nearly verbatim by a friend of mine this very year and one which I think bears regular repeating and thinking about. (It’s ludicrous to say that poor people simply shouldn’t exist and thus aren’t our concern.) Yet despite this, Cratchit (a good looking James Hayward) was out of the house and off for Christmas eve, leaving Scrooge to his lonely apartment, in about five minutes flat.

This gave us plenty of time to have fun with the haunting of Scrooge, but I found the spooky masked singing spooks just … a little too heavy handed, to be honest. This is actually a spooky and fun scene in the book, but I found its subtlety, and Marley’s message, got lost along the way.

And then the ghost of Christmas Past came along … and she was a girl, in a white dress, basically looking to me like a tarted up Miss Havisham. Where were my candles? When in the world did it get decided that she was “Cinderella, that you left behind when you left behind your books” (not a quote)? What a bunch of claptrap! Christmas Past as Cinderella! Yeah, sure, it was cool when they were “flown” over London (really awesome special effect involving not too much effort), but … CINDERELLA. You might as well have made … Tiny Tim the Ghost of Christmas Future. Oh wait, they DID! Forget the traditional image, this show came up with something so entirely ludicrous I found myself sighing and wishing for the finer points of the Stone Soup Theater’s Black Light Christmas Carol of some years past.

Good points: the singing of the cast was really enjoyable, Scrooge’s old girlfriend Belle (Poppy Roe) was really excellent in her scene (actually I enjoyed the whole Fezziwig scene rather a lot, though I thought the “On the First Day of Christmas” at the end was clunky), the tech crew/director did a great job handling some really challenging stuff in a tiny space (I liked the puppetry, and the lighthouse in the “Christmas by the Sea” scene was a treat), and the acting was far better than I would have expected from a space like this.

Overall this wasn’t a horrible show, but … I just think this script isn’t worthy of being produced. It’s not a bad Christmas Carol, and the price is low, so if you’re less particular about things like historical accuracy and fidelity to the text, you may enjoy it. Me, well, I can’t help but think fondly of the amazing South African “Christmas Carol” I saw last year, that captured all of the message of the story and fully bent and played with the structure while still feeling one hundred percent right. Oh well.

(This review is for a performance on Friday, December 12, 2008.)

“Monkey – Journey to the West” two for one offer – and deal on “August: Osage County” – both deals ending December 23

December 16, 2008

Today’s Metro had deals on two shows I thought were worth sharing. First, Monkey: Journey to the West (which I saw in July at the Opera House and enjoyed) has two for one tickets if you quote “Xmas 2 for 1” when you all 0844 847 1665 to book tickets. This deal is only good for the shows on Wed 17-Fri 19 at 8 PM, Sat 20 at 3 PM and 8 PM, Sun Dec 21 at 1 PM and 5:30 PM, and Tuesday 23 December at 3 PM and 8 PM. The run at the O2 ends January 4th.

Another deal is being offered on August: Osage County, possibly the best play I’ve seen all year (absolutely four stars) and without doubt the most impressive script to come out of America in years. It’s only a little deal – £5 off £40/£30 tickets – but it comes with a free drink, which will certainly help you get into the spirit of the show. The fine print reads “Call 020 7452 and quote ‘Metro Reader Offer.’ Book before December 23, valid on performances until Dec 23 excluding Saturday evenings.” Okay, there you have it, now go to the nmational and see it now!

Review – Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea – 1927 at the Battersea Arts Centre

December 12, 2008

Between Masque of the Red Death and The Human Computer, I’ve been pretty pleased with the offerings of the Battersea Arts Centre, so I had no hesitations about going ahead and booking for “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” despite having no further information about it than what little was on the website: “Using the aesthetic of silent film, a series of comic vignettes unfold in which the actresses interact seamlessly with antiquated animation accompanied by a charming, often eerie, piano score …” Well, okay, why not! I love silent movies and this sounded like it was just up my alley … and it was right down the street from my flat … perfect for a Saturday.

By the time the show rolled around I’d pretty much forgotten everything I read about it. We walked up the main staircase of the BAC and then into the space used for Masque’s cabaret and sat down in some benches facing a thrust stage. To the left, a blonde woman with a whitened face played piano; in the aisle, a woman sold program “and for three pounds, you can have one with sweeties.” These included a gingerbread man and some peppermint sticks, and seemed like a good deal, though I felt like I would have been better served by buying some wine in the bar downstairs to keep me company during the show.

The evening started properly when The Bee’s Knees, a female dance duo I’d last spotted at Miss Behave’s Naughty Nightie, doing their 20s Charleston gig. This, however, became even more fun when they returned and did a set in which the projected movies from the stage helped them perform costume changes and even a memorable head switch – truly not the kind of thing I’d ever seen done on stage before! I don’t think they’re particularly amazing dancers, but they were fun to watch and a good choice to get us in the right mood for the evening.

After this, 1927 got into their actual performance. It was described as ten short works. These are the titles of the works: 9 Deaths of Choo Choo the Cat, Manderley, The Lodger, Sinking Suburbia, The Buscuiy Tin Revolution, My Old Aunt, The Grandmother, The Misadventures of Frau Helga Von Schnetterline, The Devil’s Boot’s Creek. The general idea was that one or two of the young lassies that compose 1927 (one a blonde, but not the pianist; the other a brunette with a bob; both with white faces – there are other members but only the pianist appeared – the projectionist/animator stayed in the booth) would interact on stage with the projections being showed. This could be as simple as staying put while lines were drawn around them (or something more complex was shown, i.e. blowing out smoke rings from a cigarette); it could mean that their dresses were used as a projection screen. Choo Choo the cat was a great introduction to the whole style as the animation allowed all sorts of silly things to happen to the girl playing Choo Choo that couldn’t have been done at all with traditional stage play, and it all was fairly comic and fun. There was also a narrative bit of animation or two.

My favorite bits were the ones with two sort of evil/demented sisters a la Edward Gorey. They were looking for someone to play with, and the movie showed what had happened to their other friends/toys. They reappeared again in the show and did a little audience interaction bit that I’ll leave a secret so as not to ruin the surprise.

Overall this was a fun evening though quick as it ended at 8:45. It wasn’t particularly intellectually challenging but for those who like silent movies or Gorey-esque humor I would recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 6th, 2008.)

Review – “Mother Goose” – Hackney Empire

December 11, 2008

It was three years ago that I went to my first Panto – the Old Vic’s Aladdin with Sir Ian as Widow Twanky. It was great fun and a real change from any theater I’d seen before – rather like the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with more audience participation than I would have guessed possible. After I moved here, I made going to Panto one of my new traditions (along with fireworks on Bonfire Night) – it’s something I really enjoy! And for the last two Christmas seasons, the Hackney Empire has put on the best Panto in London, so this third round I went in with my hopes high.

One of the neat things about going to the Hackney is that I’ve become familiar with the cast and the style of the productions. This year once again featured Clive Rowe as its dame, rather appropriately the big star as “Mother Goose,” giving him the maximum opportunity to show off his pipes and the many fantastic costumes Lotte Collett cooked up. (He seemed to have not nearly enough stage time as Ma Whittington last year and I was glad to see him in nearly every scene this time.) We were mostly saved the trauma of the ever so dull “lead boy,” and instead had Abigail Rosser as “Princess Jill” and Kat B as Mother Goose’s postboy son. Both of them were fine, but as usual it’s the baddies that are fun to watch. This year we had Tony Whittle as “Baron Bonkers,” the henchman of Mother Goose’s arch enemy, Vanity (a sort of evil fairy), and Tameka Empson as Frightening Freda. I’m pretty sure I saw Tameka as Cinderella’s evil mother two years ago – her height and distinctive voice rang a bell – but one way or another she was just great to watch in this show. Her character, dressed in gold lame and with a million cell phones dangling from her belt like severed heads on Kali, was sassy and sharp and allowed Tameka to display her great comic timing.

Whittle had a hard time holding up against her, but he showed his brilliance this year (as last – I am thinking he was Dick Whittington’s employer?) in some top-notch improv, both times when Mother Goose made a mistake – first when a gag with some plates fell flat (as it were – they refused to break), the second time when they were doing a sort of love scene and they both were fighting so furiously to keep from laughing they were having a hard time getting their lines out. Frankly, Whittle would make it worth coming back to see the show a second time just to see what kind of goofy quips he came up with.

The show overall was full of fun, with lots of unnecessary singing (I just couldn’t get enough of Charity, the good fairy, played by Sharon Clarke, and apparently neither could the woman sitting next to me, who sang along with her rather a lot), cheesy rhymes, and a hysterical bit of tap dancing from the tiny tykes they have performing in the background (several times as sheep, which was also cracking me up). The show really went OTT during the “hell” scene, when Mother Goose goes into the bad part of the forest to try to get an elixir for eternal youth (or something of that sort). The black light scene, which included popping and locking skeletons, was far cooler than I had any right to expect; and the creepy trees were straight out of MGM’s Wizard of Oz. There was a moral lesson at the end (maybe two or three), and of course a singalong, which was as horribly unpoetic as anything you could hope to be forced to participate in whilst flapping your arms like a goose. In short, the Hackney has once more produced what I’m sure will be a grand success – and at the best price of any of the big house pantos I’ve seen, showing their real commitment to making family friendly entertainment. Me, I’m already looking forward to next year’s show!

(This show is for a performance seen on Friday, December 5, 2008. Mother Goose continues through January 10th.)

Review – Darwin’s Big Idea – Natural History Museum, London

December 9, 2008

On Saturday my uncle and I went to the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History museum. Though there were substantial lines to get into the museum (due to bag checks), there were none for the exhibit itself, which I was glad of, and we had a Southwest Trains “two fer” coupon that cut the cost right down. Inside, it was fairly quiet; this wasn’t the kind of exhibit you’d want to take a very young child to, as most of it involved reading.

The exhibit itself was a melange of live animals (only two), reproduced Galapagos scenes (kind of like dioramas, I suppose), actual specimens collected by Darwin (including beetles and birds), stuffed specimens displaying the difference in species (I found the stuffed tortoises very sad – they could easily have still been alive today! – but then when I read that boats would come by the island and take 700 at a time to stuff the holds with fresh meat, it rather dulled my outrage), fossils, actual letters written by or to Darwin, a recreation of his study at his post-London home, facsimiles of letters and plant samples, skeletons, illustrative diagrams, and a few movies. It followed his life from the time he was approached to be the naturalist on the Beagle to some of the post-“Origin of Species” brouhaha, then went into the impact of his theories on modern scientific thinking and how it’s been able to predict things that have been confirmed with genetic sequencing.

I found this exhibit quite engaging, and not just because I had the opportunity to look at “the actual letter encouraging Darwin’s dad to let him go sailing!” and “the actual birds Darwin collected on the Galapagos!” The exhibit really focused on the evolution of his thought, which I found fascinating. I was certainly intrigued just by how a person who was expecting to become a minister went on to become a respected scientist and author – the whole idea of needing to get one’s parent to agree to accepting a job was shocking to me! – but the exhibit included a lot about his earlier fascination with collecting and classifying things that made it seem like this was a really natural progression for him to make. And the impact of seeing animals so very alike separated merely by a sea channel, and of seeing animals that so clearly looked to be related, somehow, to the fossils that were just lying on the ground (in Argentina) – it made it clear how he put his connections together and came up with the idea that animals evolved into other animals and we weren’t just living in a state of “everything wot God put here 6000 years ago and wot hasn’t changed since.”

I was also surprised to realize Darwin was quite aware of how controversial his conclusions would be, and that he actually postponed releasing them for some 20 years, waiting until the time was right (and had disagreements about them with his wife, who was terribly worried she wouldn’t see him in heaven, and with the captain of the Beagle, whom I think considered Darwin a heretic). I was reminded of Galileo being forced to recant his theory of the earth revolving around the sun at the hands of the Vatican – who’d think that the hand of religion would still be strangling scientists in Victorian times? – but clearly, science and “obviousness” will never be enough for those who can’t trust the facts placed squarely in front of them when it conflicts with what they want to be true.

Anyway – it was a good exhibit, and I recommend it to those who are interested in this sort of thing.

(Darwin’s Big Idea continues through April 19th, 2009. Two for one ticket vouchers can be printed off of the Southwest Trains website – look for the “Days Out” link.)

Review – In A Dark Dark House – Almeida Theatre

December 7, 2008

Since I enjoyed Fat Pig so much, I was excited when I heard Neil LaBute’s newest play was making its European debut at the Almeida. His writing is very much focused on the American now – not so much the historical moment we find ourselves in as the psychological landscape we live in. I’m not sure if the way I’m wired inside is similar to the English that I live among, but I think it’s different, and I think LaBute gets it. Pinter, I think, is the playwright of the English psyche – a lot of his mysteries can only be understood by those who live here. LaBute seems to understand the lies Americans tell themselves about what they feel and what is important to them, about how they want to be and how they actually act, and about how the react when they realize (or have pointed out) these contradictions. I also very much like his dialogue – it very much sounds appropriate for now, rather than being written in some “high theater” style.

In a Dark Dark House is well suited to the elements I like of his style. The story is about two brothers dealing with some very bad elements of their childhood as well as their relationship with each other. The younger brother Drew (Steven Mackintosh) has made enough of a wreck of his life that he’s wound up at a nut farm/”rehab” facility after a major car crash; he’s asked his estranged elder sibling Terry (David Morrissey) to come and help with his therapy. This all seems pretty pedestrian, even given the serious lack of empathy between the two brothers. In fact, it seems like it’s all going to blow up and the play is going to end rather quickly (though I had no idea where it was going to go) when Terry decides he’s just had enough of his brother’s game-playing bullshit and gets ready to storm of the stage and just leave him to his own devices (and likely jail sentence) when suddenly it comes out what the therapy session is really dealing with; not parental abandonment, not serious physical abuse (at the hands of their father), but child sexual abuse, and Terry’s possible role in allowing this to happen to his brother.

Wow. Suddenly I was sitting up on the edge of my seat. This is not really a topic I’ve seen dealt with much in the theater, and I’ve never seen it handled particularly well. But the effect sexual abuse has in later years on the adults who were its victims, and the particularly squirrely convolutions it has on the relationships between two people who both suffered it at the hands of the same person and then spend years not talking about it to each other … that was really something. I became entirely lost in the dialogue and really focused on the play, quite an achievement given the condition I was in (sleep dep and burnt out from work).

Oddly, it was the second scene that really had me on edge and was also the strongest one of the night. Terry left his brother as an avenging angel out to find the person who screwed them both up. Incongruously, he winds up on a miniature golf course, where Jennifer (Kira Sternbach) is waving her rather underclad (and well toned) bum at the audience while she cleans up the ball tubes (the conversational innuendo in this scene was pretty heavy, so please don’t blame it on me!). This 15 year old, who is rather heavily flirting with Terry, turns out to be … the daughter of the man who sexually abused him and his brother.

Really, just where was it all going to go? As the scene ended, with the tension ratcheted up so high I could almost not bear to watch any more, I had NO idea what the playwright was going to choose to do. We’d already done childhood sexual molestation – did we have any more evils to hit?

The final scene is at Drew’s fancy house; he’s made it out of rehab and is celebrating. Then his brother Terry shows up to tell him about what he’s been up to, and … well, let’s say it doesn’t go well. I enjoyed it, though – it was a good evening out and a peach at 1:45 running time with no interval (forgive me but I was exhausted and the Almeida is a long trek from my house), and I felt well rewarded for trusting to an author I enjoyed to provide me with an energizing and provocative (in ever so many ways) night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 4th, 2008. In a Dark House runs through January 17th.)

Two for one deals on Christmas shows (mostly pantos) courtesy of the Evening Standard

December 5, 2008

Well! Today’s Eros cardholders email included a list of great two for one deals on various holiday shows. I noticed the Hackney Empire’s “Mother Goose” isn’t on the list, but given that seats are already quite affordable, who cares? On the other hand, the New Wimbledon Theater’s Cinderella is runing £30 a seat – outrageous! Anyway, here are a list of the deals, with details – the original page is here.

Aladdin, The Rosemary Branch, N1 ,Offer valid 17-22, 27-31 December and 2-4, 6-11 January 7.00pm. Tickets: £15 (£12 concessions). Matinees 20, 21, 27, 28 December, 3, 10 January 2.30pm. Tickets £12 (£8 under 16). Offer is valid for shows from Wednesday 3 December – Sunday 11 January. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 7704 6665 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Amazonia, at the Young Vic, SE1 (I’m going to see this one!): Offer valid on shows from Wednesday 3 December- Saturday 24 January. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 7922 2922 and quote Evening Standard Offer. (Looks like normal prices are £10 to £22.50, so a good deal!)

Cinderella at The Churchill Theatre Bromley Offer valid for the following shows: 10 Dec 7.30pm, 13 Dec 7.30pm, 15 Dec 7.30pm, 19 Dec 7.30pm, 20 Dec 10.30am, Tickets £18-£25. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 0870 060 6620 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Cinderella at the New Wimbledon Theatre, SW19. Mon 15 – Sat 20 Dec – all 2pm and 7pm performances. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 0870 060 6646 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Dick Whittington at the Queens Theatre Hornchurch, RM11. Offer valid for shows from Wednesday 3 December – Saturday 10 January. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 01708 443333 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Hansel & Gretel, Theatre Royal Stratford East, E15 Offer valid for shows from Wednesday 3 December- Saturday 17 January. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 8534 0310 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Mirror Magic Market Tales, The Riverside Studios, W6. Offer valid on shows from Wednesday 3 December- Sunday 4 January. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 8237 1111 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Pinocchio, at The Polka Theatre, SW19. Offer available for the following shows: 6 Dec 5.30pm, 30 Dec 11am, 31 Dec 11am, 2 Jan 11am, 3 Jan 5.30pm, 17 Jan 5.30pm. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 8543 4888 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

The Nightingale Mystery at The Rosemary Branch, N1 Offer valid on shows from Wednesday 3 December- Wednesday 10 December. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office 020 7704 6665 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Tombstone Tales & Boothill Ballads at Arcola Theatre, E8 (I want to see this one too, but I don’t know when I can possibly fit it in!) Offer is valid for shows from Wednesday 3 December – Saturday 20 December 2008. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 7503 1646 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Twelve Days of Christmas at the Chickenshed Theatre, N14. Offer is valid for shows from Wednesday 3 December- Saturday 17 January. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 8292 9222 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Young Dick Barton, The Warehouse Theatre, Croydon. Offer valid for shows from Wednesday 3 December – Sunday 22 February. To book 2 tickets for the price of 1 call the Box Office on 020 8680 4060 and quote Evening Standard Offer.

Review – A Little Night Music – Menier Chocolate Factory

December 3, 2008

Last night I headed off with my uncle, J and Sue to see A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Now, I approached this whole show with some considerable misgivings, chief among them that, though I am a big fan of musicals, I do not care for Sondheim. I base this on seeing two of his works and finding them not very good (“Into the Woods” and “Sweeney Todd”) and the fact that I generally find his music “tweedley” and just generally not very hummable. Me, I want to walk out of a show singing something, like I did for “Drowsy Chaperone” and “Anything Goes,” but Sondheim doesn’t really leave me with a single memorable musical moment … it’s just kind of noise, like modern operas, though not to the extent that I want to stick an icepick in my ears like I did for “Pierrot Lunaire.”

My second major misgiving was that this whole thing was directed by Trevor Nunn. Now, chances are that if you know anything about musical theater, you’ve probably heard his name before. Unfortunately for me he is forever linked with “Les Mis,” which is stuck in my memory as the very first time I realized a musical could be complete crap. Nowadays I realize that pretty much anything can get hyped beyond all realms of belief and yet still be a steaming pile of poo, but twenty or so years ago this came to me as a tremendous shock. So I figured that once again I was likely to be signing myself up for something that was overdesigned beyond all belief and also hollow at the core.

Well, okay, there was one reason that I did not absolutely believe that this would be the case, and thus bought the tickets in the first place, and this was because this show was being produced at the Menier. Now, my first visit to the Menier was a bit of a disaster; the show (“Playing Our Song”) was a turkey and I left the theater with huge scrapes on my knees from the overly close seating arrangement. However, I loved the space; intimate as all get out (a bit much so in regards to the other audience members) and a really amazing place to watch people singing big songs to you from ten feet away. I’ve also been pretty impressed by the Menier’s record at getting its shows transferred elsewhere; while I can’t imagine why I’d ever bother with “Sunday in the Park with George” (as transferred to Broadway) its “La Cage,” now on the West End, is apparently quite the thing, and I thought that chances were better than not that this would be a good show and I’d be pleased to say “I saw it when” etc.

But then of course there was the Sondheim angle. Bit of a roll of the dice, eh, but the tickets were bought, and, if nothing else, my uncle was quite pleased to be going to see this show while he was visiting, and, well, the company would be good, so my fingers were crossed.

New to this trip was an Assigned Seating System (woo!) which ensured we could actually relax with our dinner and glasses of port at the Boot and Flogger prior to the show, all the while knowing we’d not have to sit in the row with the four inch wide aisle because we had seats waiting for us. Hurray! Unfortunately, “front row” meant “in the seats designed for people who are under five feet tall,” as we were ridiculously low to the ground and spent the whole time watching the show from over the top of our knees. Oh well, at least we had leg room – though we were a bit worry we might trip up the performers.

The show itself was actually a quite interesting little frippery (based on a Bergman movie – one of the happy ones, apparently) about a middle aged man wedded to an 18 year old girl (Anne Egerman, played by Jessie Buckley), who have an unconsummated marriage; he is attracted to a lush actress (named Desiree, my!) with whom he had a liason some years back, while his religious son is in love with the wife (who’s much closer to his age) and hating himself for it. All of this contained sexual energy goes wild when the unhappy family is invited to the actress’ country house for the weekend, at which point the play suddenly turns into one of those Shakespearean comedies of errors in which all true lovers are united at the end and we are sent home with smiles on our faces.

So there I was, hunched in my front row seat, watching these people sing and dance close enough to me that I could see the wrinkles on their faces (except for the 18 year old, whom appears to be actually … well, 19), listening very closely to the music and laughing at the clever libretto (who’d ever think to use “Titian” as a rhyme with “Venetian?”), and I realized … I was actually enjoying myself. Sure, I couldn’t stand Desiree Armfeldt’s (Hannah Waddingham’s) hairdo, which was too “1960s sex goddess,” and the miked voices made me want to tear my OWN hair out, and the actress’ aged 10 or so daughter was just verging on nauseatingly cute and precocious (though I did admire her for singing with so much hair in her mouth – was it all about the hair for me?), and my uncle was gagging a bit on the cigar smoke in Act Two – but wasn’t it all just rather lovely, with the simple, yet effective sets, the 100% professional cast practically sitting in my lap, the very interesting and believable characters? I mean, wasn’t it pretty much the whole package other than some niggling bits?

Anyway, by the intermission I’d perked up quite a bit, and by the end of the show I was thinking, well, who knows, maybe this Sondheim guy isn’t so bad after all. Maybe the fact it was a community college cast I saw performing “Into the Woods” affected how I feel about it. Maybe … maybe Sondheim is a taste best appreciated with age. When I found myself comparing the libretto to Cole Porter’s work, it did make me think I’d turned a corner. At any rate, it was a good evening out, and I do very much encourage people to take themselves down to Southwark and catch this show – it’s on for three months so you should have a bit more luck than you would at the typical Donmar production.

(This review is for a performance on Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008. For a far more thorough review, please read the West End Whingers, who got a lot of benefit out of buying a program. Too bad I could find so little information about the cast on the Menier’s site – perhaps they’re shy.)