Archive for May 26th, 2009

Review – Aunt Dan and Lemon – Royal Court Theatre

May 26, 2009

There are some shows out there that I’ve hated and some shows I’ve found confusing, and then there are shows where I walked out just not knowing what to think. In its 1997 Seattle incarnation, Aunt Dan and Lemon left me … well, let’s say I didn’t really embrace it, despite having a brilliant local actor (Charles Smith) in the role of Aunt Dan, and a fine soul (Sydney Fine) in the role of Lemon, the sickly young woman who narrates the piece. (The gender of Aunt Dan was switched in this version.) Actually, I left feeling a bit creeped out – was Lemon really as demented as she came out to be? – but the rest of it had gone rather fuzzy over time.

But, you know, times change, and nowadays I’m in London, where all of the plays I saw butchered back home (Pinter comes to mind) are flourishing in the hands of the extraordinary local talent pool. And, by God, with Jane Horrocks as Lemon, how could I not want to see this show, with its evocation of the dark side of swinging 60s London as well as its many philosophical passages? Surely its failings were due to poor acting and staging, and that would all be taken care of this time.

I’ll say this for the show: listening to Aunt Dan (Lorraine Ashbourne) rant about how noble and just Henry Kissinger was as he bombed little Vietnamese villages flat in order to “protect our lifestyle” sure rings a lot more possible after listening to all of the crap about Iraq over the last eight years, and hearing Lemon herself sweetly talk about what we would all quite naturally do if our “most basic hopes as a society” were being threatened – that we would kill other people with barely a thought – is not quite as surprising (I think of Jean Charles de Menezes) as it was in what seem, somehow, to have been more innocent days. But it still comes off like a night at a freak show when she goes into her final monologue about how we just have to admit that we, as human beings, like to kill. Ms. Horrocks has, I think, the perfect innocence and gentleness to squeeze all of the horror out of this role, which is the incarnation of the banality of evil. I can only imagine what the playwright was trying to accomplish.

Still, most of the people who left (10 or 15 where we were, doubtlessly more in the balcony) departed long before this point arrived, though it didn’t seem to be because of the rather surprisingly graphic sex scene or even the murder. It might have been because it was 110 minutes with no interval … but, mostly, I think, it was because it’s just an irritating script, which, despite the sprinkles of sex-zaz (the luminous Scarlett Johnson as Mindy “who always needs money,” phwoar! – a total scene-stealer) and politics, ultimately comes off as being rather too much like a party guest who just won’t shut up about something incredibly boring, or listen to anything besides the sound of their own voice. Lemon’s mother (Mary Roscoe, very good if too old for the role, but so was Ashbourne) couldn’t get away from Dan, but we, as audience members, could actually just sneak out the back door. I think this is a play worth seeing, and it might never be done any better than this, but I can’t really say that it’s a great play, and without doubt it would benefit from being shorter.

(Aunt Dan and Lemon continues at the Royal Court Theater through June 27th.)

Review – Sondheim’s “Company” – Union Theatre

May 26, 2009

On Sunday, J and W and I headed to Southwark for the current musical at the Union Theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Company. Ever since Annie Get Your Gun I’ve been hoping to catch another red-hot musical there, but the Mikado sold out before I could go and an anti-Sweeney guest kept me from making it to see the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This time I was quick out of the gate, though, as Company had been open for all of four days when I saw it, which meant the cast was nice and fresh – and yet the audience was still on top of things, as there was only one seat open in the house!

I hadn’t heard of Company before, despite having heard of a song from it (“Side by Side,” as in Side by Side by Sondheim). I’m a little late to the Sondheim game, anyway, since I have long disliked Into the Woods and took it as being representative of his style and thus a good warning to stay away. Rambling weird non-singing and non-music? Not really my bag – I want hummable tunes and the occasional anthem a la Anything Goes and Drowsy Chaperone. But, who knows, I’ve got this theory that Sondheim may be something that grows on you as you age – like a taste for red wine and truffles – since I enjoyed A Little Night Music when I saw it at the Menier this fall. The songs aren’t really any more tuneful than they ever were, but something about the crap people have been churning out (modern musicals, I mean, think “Wicked”) has made brilliant lyrics that much more important to me, and I found myself paying attention 100% to what people were saying on stage during that show … and looking forward to this one, even though I knew little about it.

What I did know went kind of like this: Bobby (Lincoln Stone) is a single guy in his mid-30s. He has 5 couples as friends (his “company,” who value his company) – who all want to see him coupled up. While spending time with them, we get to see vignettes of each couple’s dynamic, which kind of throws the whole “OMG you must get married it’s THE BEST” attitude into a state of comic irony … while also setting us up for some very deep thoughts on what couplehood actually means. It’s one thing to crack a joke about the ball and chain (and it’s an easy laugh), but couple dynamics actually allow for some really messed up relationships to develop (ie Strindberg’s The Creditors), in addition to the positive ones. And in this examination of complexity, Sondheim’s own intelligence, his skill as a lyricist, really comes through. It’s occasionally a comic play, but at its core it’s a rather bleak examination of marriage as a commodity, of coupledom as a destructor of self, of a society that ignores the failings of this institution in favor of pushing conformity. Really, it practically begs for a few humorous moments to make its underlying themes digestible.

As usual, the Union folks made good work out of the shoestring budget they had – no stinting on talent (fourteen actors and a five piece band), but an ultra-bare set (a column and a table-sized light box) and light costuming. Actually, the costumes looked a little better than they’re usually able to afford, a nice palette of tans and browns that was evocative of the 70s without being a slave to it (witness completely inaccurate Juicy Couture tracksuits with thong underwear peeking above the waistline – absolutely not of the era), jazzed up with splashes of red for Bobby’s various love interests. The cast was also managing to pretend to be American well enough, though gorgeous Jenny Layton’s Southern Susan sounded like she fell out of a can of corn pone (Steven Craven as her husband Peter having more of the Dennison’s Chile sound, say via Montana). Unfortunately the show started with Samantha Seager (Sarah) just completely losing her accent in the middle of her scene, while her character’s husband Harry (Tom Hyatt) seemed confused about the name of the offense for driving under the influence – “drunk driving” in America, not “drink driving” (that would imply the bottle itself was behind the wheel). You’d think with English actors’ general ability to do 40 different accents at the drop of the hat they’d work a bit on throwing a few American options into the mix, but maybe theater schools here don’t find it a worthy thing to study. (New Jersey accents would have been perfect for Sarah and Harry.)

Notably radiating star power was Lucy Williamson as the bitter, three times married Joanne, “a wildy conceited broad with no self esteem.” She only really starred in one scene, but in each of the company ensembles she pretty well owned the stage, and her accent never dropped for a second. In fact, she was the very incarnation of a tough-as-nails New Yorker friend of mine. That said, she got a bit too angry during her big moment with our protagonist, popping me suddenly into “oh yeah, I’m really just watching a show with people acting” mode. I wouldn’t normally push people toning it down, but Ms. Williamson burned so brightly she didn’t actually need to flame out during this scene.

That said, my favorite moment in the show was Amy (Marisa Leigh Boynton) and Paul (Paul Callen)’s scene, in which they are about to go to the church and get married but Amy is getting cold feet – and more than a touch mental. She managed to be completely nuts – even having bizarre fantasies in which a ballerina (Lucy Evans, also hysterical and freakshowish as Bobby’s flight attendant girlfriend April) walks through a church wielding a butcher knife – racist, and ultimately sympathetic. Of all of the couple vignettes, this one showed more than the others how support is part of the equation as well as obligation and every other thing that binds two people together.

Now Lincoln Stone – he’s fine, but in some ways it seems like his character, despite all of the singing, is more of a thread to tie the other couples together rather than an entity with an exciting story of his own to move through. He’s fine (and looks nice in his shirtless scene with April), but … this show really needs more than him. It’s about the company, after all, and fortunately Michael Strassen didn’t pick a bunch of wallpaper for the rest of the show. And they’re there, in your face, in the tiny theater, singing without microphones, and really making it happen. And all this is only £15. Amazing, I tell you. This is a really good show, and you’d be a fool to miss it.

(Company continues at the Union Theatre through Saturday June 13th, 2009. Book now or forever regret you missed this. See Feigned Mischief for an alternate review.)

FYI: Union Theatre is trying to gather enough donations to buy a baby grand piano – checks for £25 per key being accepted. Make ’em out to “The Union Theatre” and send ’em off to 204 Union Street, SE10LX. I feel like I owe them for the good entertainment they’ve provided me and am encouraging anyone else that enjoys what they’ve been doing to pony up.