Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008

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Well, it’s been the busiest show year for me in my entire life. Sadly, I don’t think I can speak to the entirety of London theater even with some 93 shows under my belt (all paid out of pocket, which does impose limits on what I can see), but I think I can at least say I made a good attempt at covering the scene …

Best dance performance:

New York City Ballet’s Jerome Robbins Program (Four Seasons, Moves, The Concert). I am a big fan of the mixed rep performance (because it provides you with a chance to see many different styles in one night), but often a really strong program will be marred by one piece that’s a real dog. But when you take a world class company like City Ballet and pair it with choreography by Robbins – well, this was the kind of night that had me walking out of the theater gasping for breath. Whew!

Best theater I “discovered:”

The Arcola Theatre, way off in the eastern wilds of Dalston, became the theater I most wanted to visit this year. I saw two productions there (Lady from the Sea, The Only Girl in the World) and kept trying to see more. The intimacy of the two spaces within the theater really pleased me; the coffee shop made waiting for the show to open pleasant; the inventiveness of the directors engaged my mind. Why is it that it always seems like when you give people less, they can do more? The biggest problem with this theater: getting home an hour and a half after the end of the show really killed me and kept me from seeing at least two shows. Still, they have another exciting season ahead and I will try to go back often.

Worst seating:

I know the Menier Chocolate Factory has recently started reserved seating (on a “show by show basis,” God knows why), but I actually got scrapes on my thighs from the seats I had for “They’re Playing Our Song,” and my front row seats for “A Little Night Music” put my eye level at about the height of my knees. Do these people never actually watch the shows from the seats or what?

Best cheesy musical:

though my seats were far from ideal, the most fun West end musical this year was absolutely “Zorro.” This panto for adults also wins the prize for best musical to take out of town visitors to see. I expect it will be around for a while, and deservedly so.

Best musical:

the Union Theatre in Southwark knocked my socks off with their “Annie Get Your Gun.” First you’ve got the most awesome music ever (it was just one hit after another), then you take a pile of brilliant actors and pack them in a room so tightly they’re practically sitting in your lap, then you make them sing and dance and ham it up, and there you have the incredibly overstimulating Annie/Gun experience. I’ve only not made it back to that theater because of the Union’s tendency to sell their shows out so far in advance. MUST remember to make reservations earlier from now on!

Best show:

it wasn’t just the hype: for me, “August: Osage County” was a “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” kind of show, with a on the mark script that in the hands of its stellar cast managed to get me through three hours of chatter without once boring me. The characters were sharp and realistically written; their conflicts believable; and, ooh, even if many of the plot points were pulled straight out of the O’Neill bag of tricks, how fresh they seemed. Oddly, both it and “Gesthemane” seemed to be critiques of a world gone rotten through bad politics (this rot seeming to extend to the family), but it’s my belief that “Osage County” will stand the test of time and O’Hare’s show will be forgotten in another year or so. It’s all about great characters and timeless themes, folks, and Tracy Letts’ play has got ’em in spades. (For a long time it looked like it was going to be the theatrical magic of “Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter” that took the prize, but Deanna Dunagan just blew me out of the Lyttelton.)

Worst show:

well, you know, there was the pretentiousness, and then the farting jokes, and then the incoherent plot, and the boringness, and then the pretentiousness, and that’s not even including the overall horror that is what happens when you try to use rhyming couplets as a medium for telling a show. Yes, I am talking about “Fram,” a play so bad that it’s become legendary, a point of reference for badness (the “baddicle”), and the inspiration for my only rhymed review of a show. Does a play have sleeping bags, or dogs, or perhaps a reference to Westminster Abbey, or even a banquet scene? Then, sir, you may be hearing a joke about how it makes me think of Fram. One member of my party had to leave in a rush at intermission due to an impending panic attack; I had to buy drinks for the remaining members of my party (who trickled out at the end of intermission) as an apology for inviting them. Who knows: perhaps some day the National will remount Carrie: The Musical as an apt pairing with this other turkey. God only knows it is good to support new works but sometimes you can take it too far.

Weirdest show:

the “Shen Yu Divine Performing Arts Ensemble Chinese Spectacular gets the prize here. I’m a big fan of Chinese culture, but when you combine cheesy special effects with a religious revival, you get me looking for the doors. I’ve never seen a mainstage performance that was also pushing a political and religious agenda at the same time, and nowhere on the promotional literature did it say that this was the Fa Lun Gung religious cult’s take on China, Chinese culture, and Chinese art – with lots of pro-Fa Lun Gung songs, done in a horrible European style, sandwiched between the dance bits. I prefer to keep my dance separated from my politics, and I don’t like people doing a bait and switch like happened here – telling me I was going to see “art” and instead giving me a bunch of “religion.” I much preferred the Peony Pavillion, which gave me a chance to see a truly classical Chinese performance (and over three nights!).

Best cheap place to eat before a show:

there were a few great entries in this category this year. Paul’s given up its Covent Garden crown in favor of Wahaca; Bangalore Express has the Old Vic and Young nicely covered; but the restaurant I dreamed of was 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, around the corner from the Arcola. It’s the only restaurant that made me look for excuses to be in the neighborhood. Mmm, meat! (And there’s another one around the corner from the Hackney, but I only go there at panto time so that didn’t influence me much.)

Best website for London theatre fans:

there’s a lot of shows out there, and while price is important in determining which to see, it’s even more important (to me) that I not waste my time on turkeys (Thanksgiving is only once a year!). So I thank the West End Whingers not just for being attentive to the many things that can make a good evening better, but also to the horrible, glaring, single thing that can make an evening bad: a completely crap show. They’ve sent me to shows I wouldn’t have considered (Zorro) and done their best to save me from the dogs (Gone With The Wind – The Musical! – saved! Fram – oops), all while doing so with a writing style that keeps me entertained consistently (more than I can say for many of the shows they’ve seen). They even inspired me to do my own blog. Thanks, Phil and Andrew!

Best website for London theatre deals:

of all of the things people seem interested in reading about on this site, it’s my post on the 12 best ways to get cheap theater tickets in London that keeps the punters coming. So I’ve started adding more deals to the site as I see them come through. That said, for me personally, LastMinute.com has done the most to make it possible for ME to see as many shows as I do. I don’t have an unlimited budget, and when times are tight, I know I can pop over to their site with a good chance of being able to find something for £10-£15. I can’t always find the show I want when I want it, and I’m occasionally going to get not very good seats, but when the option is not going at all … to me, it’s more important to have been there and seen most of it than to have not been able to go at all. Thanks, LastMinute.com – and for the rest of you people who keep trying to flog your crappy, overpriced scalper seats on my site – buzz off!

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3 Responses to “Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008”

  1. Andrew (a west end whinger) Says:

    Awww, bless you for that.

    Thrilled that Zorro and Annie Get Your Gun were winners for you too.

    But do you ever regret not taking just a peek at Gone With The Wind if only out of morbid curiosity?

    It will live on in theatrical history long after people have forgotten about Gethsemane – i.e. it already does.

    A
    x

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Seriously, one “Fram” a year was enough for me. That said, if I could have got a group of friends to go … but time is short, you know, and I’m always hoping that when I go out I’ll have a good night, not a laughably memorable baddicle.

    On the other hand – it was strictly due to your recommendations that I got off my ass and went to see “Annie/Gun” and “Zorro,” so thank you so much for pointing those great shows out to me. The first I would have never heard of, and the second I was pointedly ignoring, but you were able to rouse me out of my stupor and get me out to see them. Too bad I wasn’t able to take your advice and skip Fram as the tickets were already bought.

  3. Exit, pursued by a bear Says:

    and thank YOU, WCG, for making me laugh so much over the course of 1998, with your witty reviews. And to the Whingers as well, for the very same reason. Of all the theatre review blogs on the web, both of your blogs are up there at the top. With my own, of course (cough).

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