Archive for September, 2009

Review – Insane in the Brain – Bounce at the Peacock Theatre

September 30, 2009

When I first heard of Bounce’s “Insane in the Brain,” billed as “a hip-hop adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest“, I wasn’t particularly interested. Hip-hop isn’t my thing, and Peacock programming usually isn’t my style. But then Clement Crisp waxed rhapsodic and suddenly I was seeing things in a different light. What is there about the thought about this wizened, snooty, ballet fan going wild about hip hop that made me think that this was now a show I couldn’t miss? The idea of him “getting down” kind of cracks me up, but he showed raw enthusiasm (or as raw as it gets when processed through his typewriter) and I was sold. So last night off J and I went for a night of staged street dancing.

It was pretty impressive to walk into a theater full mostly of 17 and 18 year olds who were there to see dance and cheered when the lights went down. Clearly, this piece had some idea of who its audience was meant to be! The underlying story of OWFOtCN is of a man (McMurphy) who gets himself committed to an asylum so he can avoid going to jail. He spends his time cheering up (and probably helping) the inmates, while trying to avoid the clutches of the sadistic guards and the truly evil Nurse Ratchett. While he makes fun of them, he finds out that they actually wield far more power than he ever expected, and in the end finds himself trapped in a place he went to as a joke. Not a happy ending, alas! It wasn’t really something I imagined would do well as a dance piece, but, in fact, it did, and it managed to do so with a minimum of dialogue (just a bit in the first scene).

Dancewise, after the original “introduce the characters, who are having group therapy” scene, the scenes go something like this: dance class; guards abuse the patients after hours; an uneasy night’s sleep; dance class again; outside time (with speaker); Nurse Ratchett shows her power; the breakout (in which the inmates go watch a movie) and capture; electroshock time; planning the final escape; In Which The Virgin Man Is Teased With A Blowup Doll; fight between the guards; break IN and sex scene; McMurphy is finally broken and The End. All this was done to a score that included piles of songs I’d never heard of before (but enjoyed) but also songs I did recognize, like “Express Yourself” and the wordless song from the Matrix, as well as some totally bizarre Astor Piazolla. The scene where they started playing “Maniac” and all of the characters suddenly appeared on stage in 80s dance clothes was hysterical and even managed to duplicate the infamous “shower” scene from Flashdance – and the audience ate it up.

I was enjoying myself, too. I loved the introductory “dancing with our backs to the audience but with mask on our face” piece (low tech yet so clever and effective); the “we’ve lost all control” movement of the three dancers suspended from the ceiling after the electroshock session; the hysterical Bunraku-style inflatable sex doll scene; and Shy Guy’s floating choreography as he starts to feel more confident in himself.

Oddly, though, my very favorite bit was the silent movie, which had three ragamuffin/tramp types break into the house of some upper class Victorians who are sitting down to dinner, complete with servants. When the intruders are detected, a street dance showdown between the two sides takes place that had me dying to see Oliver redone in this style. It was especially fuunny because of the incongruity of a proper Victorian lady shaking her booty and throwing gang attitude to the other crewe. The audience was laughing their heads off … just like me.

So Mr.Crisp was on the money and I’m grateful to him for the tip. This couldn’t have been more different than my stiff night at the Rojo/Brandenberg show, and I was glad for it.

(This review is for a performance that took place September 29th, 2009. Bounce continues at the Peacock through October 3rd – details on the Sadlers Wells website.)

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Guest Review – Prick Up Your Ears – Comedy Theatre

September 28, 2009

What is a girl to do when she has tickets for two shows on the same night? Thanks to winning a ticket giveaway on LastMinute.com, this happened to me. I decided to stick with the shorter one and likely cheerier one (An Inspector Calls) and gave these tickets away to the husband of a friend of mine … a friend who’s a huge Joe Orton fan. My requested payment? A review of the show. And thus we have …

Prick Up Your Ears, a guest review by Katy

If you have read the biography and the diaries and the plays and watched the film adaptation (yes, I am a bit of an Orton fan, why do you ask), then the play of Prick Up Yours Ears will not show you anything you didn’t already know, but you should go to see it anyway. (The one thing I wasn’t expecting was the Battenberg-cake ceiling, which kept giving me a vague craving for marzipan.) If you haven’t done any of that, I recommend it anyway if you’re interested in watching the faithful depiction of a loving, intense, unbearable and tragic relationship rendered through very funny Ortonesque – and indeed Halliwellesque, why not? – dialogue.

I’ve always seen the inextricably intertwined history of Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell as one of the great love stories. There’s a satisfying clarity about the themes, the similarities and the oppositions: the two men shared their love, their trangressive homosexuality, their actors’ training, their obsession with language, their sense of humour and their anarchic indifference towards all forms of authority. It’s easy to see why they were together. And, terribly, you can also see right from the start why it was doomed. The young, attractive, working-class, confident, talented Orton and the older, middle-class, insecure, much less talented Halliwell, living for fifteen years in one room while one became famous and one didn’t: it all feels very inevitable.

The intelligent, realistic production of Prick Up Your Ears at the Comedy Theatre is of course very aware of all this. It’s an adaptation by Simon Bent of John Lahr’s biography of the same name, which was largely based on Orton’s diaries: Orton’s life was well documented, not just in content but in style. Everything the characters say on stage is more or less what they actually said at the time. And yet it’s art, too, because Orton himself made it art. The dialogue in his plays were very much riffs off the way the people around him spoke – illustrated in this production by Mrs Cordon (Gwen Taylor), the comic-relief landlady, who forms the third character in what is essentially a two-hander, and is basically a character from Orton while also being a real-life inspiration of his. At this point it starts to feel as if art and life are bouncing off each other like light off opposing mirrors: is Mrs Cordon Ortonesque, or was Orton Cordonesque?

The life-reflecting-art-reflecting-life effect is further heightened by the awareness that the play – and the film of Prick Up Your Ears, and the biographies, and the diaries – has given Halliwell at least a taste of what he always wanted, fame, too late for him to appreciate it; even if the fame is eternally linked to his lover’s. The fact that this production features celebrity actor Matt Lucas as Halliwell underlines the irony. Whereas the biography was really about Orton, the play is angled to become really a play about Halliwell. It was a good decision, and a good casting choice. Matt Lucas is a perfect Kenneth: bald, angry, pretentious, funny, showing us that his position is both untenable and irresistible. He delights in his lover’s failures and resents his successes, partly because he himself has failed, and partly because Orton’s successes are driving them apart. Chris New as Orton plays off him brilliantly: bickering, shouting, bantering affectionately, and then carelessly leaving to pursue his endless cottaging activities while Halliwell does the housework and sadly sniffs his lover’s scent on the pillows.

Poor Kenneth. Despite everything (and I’m not going to specify exactly what ‘everything’ is here, just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know how this ends), it’s impossible not to feel sorry for him. My companion J (who was new to the story) muttered ‘Poor bastard!’ several times during the production, particularly when Orton presents Halliwell with a present – a wig to cover his baldness. And yet, what was Orton to do? It wasn’t a situation anyone could win at.

The structure of the play is chronological, taking us through the major turning points of the couple’s life together. First, the early years of library-book-defacing, and the seminal prison sentence that finally gave Orton space to write. (The prison theme is referenced throughout: every time the door to their room closes, the sound effect is of prison gates.) Then the increasing success of Orton’s plays, Orton becoming gloriously Orton and Halliwell remaining ingloriously, defiantly Halliwell. “You’ve changed,” says Kenneth after their post-prison reuniting. “You haven’t,” replies Joe glumly. Orton’s even changed his own name, from John to Joe.

He becomes famous. Every step takes him further away from Kenneth; and yet he never does leave. Their room, rendered on stage with claustrophobic, congested, increasingly-collaged accuracy, is a prison he keeps returning to. The couple have locked themselves into co-dependency, in the kind of love that continually tenses up into hate. It becomes increasingly hard to watch, the comedy darker and disintegrating, as they reach the end. Symbolically, Mrs Cordon has moved away: there’s no light relief from each other now, and although Joe is starting to consider it, Kenneth is determined that there shall be no escaping.

(This review was for a performance in September, I think on the 23rd. Prick Up Your Ears continues until December 6th at the Comedy Theatre.)

Review – An Inspector Calls – The Novello Theatre

September 23, 2009

I was highly intrigued by the thought experiments built into JB Priestly’s Time and the Conways, and thus was quite enthused that an opportunity to see another play he’d written nearly at the same time came just a few months later. An Inspector Calls is quite the warhorse, and I’d always assumed it was a lumbering beast very much of the Mousetrap variety – a heavyhanded mystery designed to please the punters.

What it is is sort of Shaw meets Albee with a heavy dose of George Grosz. The family at the center of this tale is the moralistic nouveau riche (circa 1910) who, in rising above their moderate origins, seemed to have become even more harsh and hateful to those they left behind; they’re joined by a young man of old money whose looking to marry the wealthy, flighty daughter.

And then, well, you know, “an inspector calls.” He’s researching the death of a young woman, though, of course, none of these nice people killed anyone! Or caused them to kill themselves. Or … well … maybe they’re not so nice as they like to think. Or maybe the girl never existed! Or maybe the inspector is just a figment of their collective imaginations! Really, who knows, but if you saw Time and the Conways you’ll have some idea of the kind of shenanigans that might be going on. It all makes for a very drama-filled two hours and guarantees lots of thoughtful post-show conversations on “what really happened.”

In some ways this script is so tight and powerful it seems likely to transcend any particular casting decisions, and yet I feel I have to single out the matriarch (Sandra Duncan) for providing the kind of bravura performance that leads me to declare London the English language theater capitol of the world. The woman packs more into a sniff than lesser beings throw into hours of simulated hysteria. Watching her go from utterly composed and coldly indifferent to the suffering of her lessers to childlike to positively demented is really just an incredible treat. I’d imagine this role would be one actresses would really fight for; but maybe it’s just that Ms. Duncan really knows how to own a stage.

I’m also thoroughly enchanted by the potentially heavy-handed set (by Ian MacNeil), which my husband felt too obviously represented the family’s fate. However, I adored its doll-house like proportions on the bizarrely perspectived stage (giant streetlamps in front, tiny ones and a truly wee little house in back), and I was thrilled when it opened down the middle to let the story take place inside. It made it even more fun that it continued to be a damned small house for full sized adults to be standing in. And then near the end, ZOW! I have to say (without saying) that I’ve never actually seen a set do quite that before. Finally, at the very end, the entire, utterly corrupt family is back in the house with their heads poking out the tiny windows, all laughing hysterically – like a scene out of a painting of the Weimar years. (The use of mixed semi-historical Edwardian clothes with 40s costumes on the non-family members just didn’t work for me at all, but, you know, with such solid acting, I couldn’t really get that worked up about it other than to note that it was a pigheaded decision that thankfully didn’t keep me from enjoying the show.) And, W00t, less than two hours running time, thank YOU Mr. Priestly for making it possible for me to go to a show on a school night.

Brief props have to go to LastMinute.com for giving me this show and a dinner for a mere 20 quid a pop. Dinner was good but I am miffed at the restaurant for “upgrading” J to a large beer and thus doubling the cost of our drinks bill (and then saying he should have sent it back instead of admitting any fault in assuming a large). That said, the Novello upgraded us to FLOOR seats when I was only expecting crappy 2nd balcony, so any foul taste in my mouth was utterly gone the minute I picked up the tickets, and by tomorrow all I’ll remember was what a top-notch show it was – really and truly what every person who comes to London and wants to see “a good show” ought to be seeing. I guess we’ll say that this one is recommended – it’s not life-changing but it sure was a good night out!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009. An Inspector Calls continues at the Novello through November 14th.)

Review – Goldberg – The Brandstrup/Rojo project – Linbury Theater

September 22, 2009

Tonight J and I went to the Linbury to see the much-hyped Tamara Rojo/Brandstrup “Goldberg Project.” I was attracted by the idea of 1) world-class dancers on the 2) intimate (chamber-sized) Linbury stage, with the 3) complete Goldberg variations performed live. It seemed like an opportunity for a lot to go right and, on the whole, it did. There was a sort of through-line – 6 dancers coming into a studio, watching a little TV (I imagined them watching a video of a piece they were going to be performing, as they always played recorded Goldberg during these bits), then dancing, mostly as couples but sometime doing solos or performing as larger groups. The three “characters” were Rojo, who appeared to have fallen out of a relationship with character two, the muscular blond dancer, and was admired from afar by Steve McRae as Mr. Unrequited Page Turner. It could be said either that we were watching a series of rehearsals or the same one repeated over and over again – I voted for the first, my husband for the second interpretation.

While I loved the muscular energy of the male breakdancer (Tommy Franzen) and the kittenish fun of the Rojo/Clara Barbera duet, the dancing between Rojo and Thomas Whitehead told a tale of an almost painful desire to control combined with genuine disdain. Unfortunately, while the Rojo/Whitehead duets had plenty of story and emotion attached, I didn’t find myself so caught up in the choreography. By comparison, McRae’s spare set of solos absolutely blistered (he moves so fast my eyes can’t track him when he spins) and electrified the stage, creating rather an unfortunate contrast with Rojo’s nearly uninterrupted melancholic dancing, which showed technique without creating focus. Blame for this must be laid at the choreographer’s feet; this show needed more flavors and just the zippy backspins of Franzen didn’t do it.

Though I usually say little about sets and lighting (due to space), props to LD Paule Constable for providing the first non-offensive use of animation in a dance production. It started out defining the space of the set (mostly a ladder, a door, a window, and bench seating all on one giant wall), then later served as some extra shadows beside a still man on ladder, returning as rain sliding down a window while cars drove behind, and finally a diagram of what Sad Woman and Unrequited Man ought to do to give the story a happy ending, the two white lines of the moving arrows twining together at the very last. My husband and I gave a sigh; now that was a nice bit of work.

So I hoped for good music, an opportunity to watch some great dancers, and excellent choreography for this evening, and I got two out of three. Overall, I’d say this was a good evening and a fun warmup for the fall season. Next stop: Mayerling!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009. Goldberg – The Brandstrup/Rojo project continues through Saturday.)

Review – The Mysteries (Yiimimangaliso) – Isango Portobello at the Garrick Theater

September 19, 2009

Last night J and I went to see Isango Portobello’s current production, “The Mysteries” (Yiimimangaliso). I’ve been very excited about this show since seeing them two years ago in their Olivier award winning Magic Flute as well as the wonderful and highly original adaptation ofA Christmas Carol. I figured, hey, Christian “Mystery” play, whatever, right? With the energy of this troupe, the great singing and dancing and original vision, it would still be a good night out.

Two caveats before my review: I have had a bacterial lung infection for a month (thus the near total lack of reviews as I’ve been too sick to go out) and am not a member of the faith celebrated in this show. That said, I got a really bad feeling when I realized I was walking into The Garrick Theater, home of the infamous boots of Zorro incident – a theater with sightlines whose shortcomings are only matched by The Palace.

The show very much stuck to the Biblical tales from which the original Mystery plays were made – God (a woman, Pauline Malefane) casts Lucifer (Noluthando Boqwana, a sexy woman who wore a red leatherette jacket and pants over a red and black bustier), God creates Adam, Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Isaac and Abraham, the Begats, and then a bunch of stuff from the New Testament. A woman in the audience complained during the interval that she wished they’d provided a list of the stories so she had known what was going on; I was kind of surprised she wasn’t familiar with them (given that I was – they’re all very popular subjects for paintings at the very least) but I admit that with the show being done about 1/3 to 1/2 in languages other than English, if you weren’t familiar with the stories there would have been a whole lot of confusion about what was going on on stage.

Still, even the language issues couldn’t compensate for a certain lack of zip for this show. I imagine that someone who was really captured by the subject matter (in a way I never could be) would have found it very powerful to see Africans telling the story of the Bible with so much singing and dancing and general enthusiasm; but what I wanted was an original, powerful theatrical presentation that pulled me in. I think it would have been better in a more intimate space, such as the Young Vic (where I saw the other two shows) or Wilton’s Music Hall, where this production was first presented in 2001. But the story itself just seemed kind of dry and fragmented. The shows Isango Portobello presented two winters back were adaptations, but they took artistically sound theater and catapulted them into new heights; this show started with source material that I think very rightly does not get produced much and never in a commercial environment.

While I very much hope the company is successful in this tour, it is my fear that The Mysteries will continue to struggle, and this pains me because I consider the members of this troupe to be highly skilled performers. The scenes where they all raised their voice in song, as when Mary was being told of her incipient pregancy by the angel, were beautiful, and the scene of Jesus having his feet washed by a “fallen woman” touching, but unfortunately moments in which I was engaged were few and far between. Still, I think there is an audience out there who would enjoy a family-friendly show that I thought of as a bit of a cross between The Lion King and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. If this is you, or if you just really like Isango Portobello and want to support them, LastMinute.com has got good seats, but make sure if you’re on the ground floor you sit no further back than row Q.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, September 18th, 2009. The Mysteries continues at the Garrick through October 3rd. And I don’t know if it’s just me but I thought having the musical director cast herself as both God and Jesus showed just a tiny bit of egotism. A more positive review can be read on the Financial Times.)

Metro deal for The Pitman Painters at the National

September 15, 2009

I’m pleased to say that this morning’s Metro had a deal on the delightful Pitmen Painters – £15 off (£24.50 seats) for all shows except Saturday evenings and weekday matinees. Book online at the National using promo code 2178 or call 020 7452 3000 and quote “celebrate the city” offer. Easy and fun!

Isango Portobello “The Mysteries” at the Garrick – £20 Metro deal until September 25

September 14, 2009

A mere year and a half later and the excitement of the South African Magic Flute I saw at the Young Vic had me about to buy £22, third balcony, restricted view seats for Isango Portobello’s return to London; but I’ve been saved by this morning’s Metro, which has “best available” seats at £20 starting September 16th. I will be buying tickets as soon as the box office opens and am very much looking forward to “best available” pot luck on September 18th over the guaranteed bad seats I was about to buy!

Specifics: call 0844 412 4662 and quote “Celebrate the City.” Good for all shows through September 25th; The Mysteries continues through October 3rd at the Garrick.

£9.99 deals from Ambassadors Tickets for 9/9/9

September 9, 2009

Got an email from Ambassadors this morning about limited availability tickets for three of their shows at the great price of £9.99. First, this week’s La Cage Aux Folles, buy on their website here. Second, Prick Up Your Ears, shows in September on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday. Buy here. For both, use code ATG999.

Also available: tickets to a “An Audience with Charley and John Boorman,” 99 tickets available for a one-off performance on Sunday 13 September. Online here, same promo code.

Anyway, this is good from 9 AM today, so good luck and GO!

September 2009 Theater schedule

September 7, 2009

This is a short one due to new job, an important birthday, and a weekend out of town:

I Bought A Blue Car Today
The Pitmen Painters
Forbidden Broadway (if I can get seats on the day, as it is sold out)
Talent
The Mysteries at the Garrick (since I loved Impepe Yomlingo so much)
Jordi Savall (classical music performance)

Review – The Pitman Painters – National Theatre

September 6, 2009

Note: discount tickets available: see this post for details.

Has it really been only a year since I read The West End Whingers’ rather frighteningly enthusiastic review for Lee Hall’s new show? Personally, the idea of a play written around the story of some nerdy rich guy going into the “deepest wilds of the Northeast” to edumacate the ignorati struck me as a blatant attempt to cash in on Hall’s very successful Billy Elliot formula (including the “based on a real story” tag line) – but with adult men and painting in the place of a cute kid and ballet. Still, it was the same, nauseating-slash-heartwarming “let’s show ’em what these hicks can do with a little encouragement” that Mr. Hall cranked out before, but with a framing (tee hee) high-culture device (“let’s learn about art!”) designed to draw in the kind of people who go for watching live theater (whom I imagine are not so much fans of the footie or whippet racing).

I hate shows that pander “feel good” ness and kept away from Pitmen Painters for a long time because of this – not to mention the fact the damned thing kept selling out, right up until it left the National altogether and went touring around England. Hall’s apparently got a sharp eye for what will keep the audiences filling seats, though – but given how I disliked Billy Elliot, that was neither a selling point nor a sign of quality. I did, however, like the paintings from the Ashington group that the National had displayed in its gallery during the earlier run, and, well, you know, the Whingers liked it (“and they never like anything!”) and it was the early booking period for the National and the first few days of the run the seats were discounted and … well, I bought some and went anyway.

I was cheered to discover upon opening my cast list that it’s actually still the original actors in the show – reedy redhead Ian Kelly in the role of Robert Lyon (“the teacher who learns from his students”), Christopher Connel as Oliver Kilbourn (“the artist who almost makes it but is held back by his pride and prejudices”), Phillippa Wilson as Helen Sutherland (“the rich woman who’s willing to look inside a person to see their true talent”), Deka Walmsley as George Brown (“the union guy who’s a stickler for following the rules”), etc., with the characters in the core group of “Pitmen painters” rounded out by “the hardcore socialist who insists on lecturing about economics,” “the simpleton” and “the obvious redshirt.”

It all seemed a bit like a sitcom, or perhaps a mining version of Gilligan’s Island, complete with Ginger, the Perfessor and Mrs. Howell. As each of the men walked on stage in the initial scene and displayed their “whimsical character trait,” I cringed inside. It was going to be just as trite as I feared! And Lyon even put in some “oh these Northern accents are so hard to understand” “comedy” bits. Gah! I’m American and I could understand what they were saying (um, mostly), there was no excuse for an Englishman to not understand what was being said.

But then … as they went into their first art lesson (clarifying that they didn’t have any interest in paintings of cherubs, i.e. no ability to appreciate art, and were far too underprivileged to have been to a library where they might have read about the Sistine Chapel, heavy handed “very poor and busy” banging by Mr. Hall) and then returned to lesson two, in which they had to paint … slowly I found myself leaving my bitter, jaded skepticism behind and getting into the play. I love art and paintings, and I would never make the mistake of thinking that people who work with their hands (and bodies) couldn’t appreciate it, or make it. And credit to Robert Lyon (or the character as portrayed in the play, as I have no idea how he felt in real life), because he was just as confident that his students could paint as any American would have been. And the discussions they had about the art they were making, and, later on, the discussions about what makes an artist, were absolutely relevant and true and useful and thoughtful as you could ever hope to have in an art class – in many ways, better than many college art classes because all of the people showing their paintings were really committed to what they were doing and not trying to score points for engaging in jargon or hitting the “what’s hot this year” charts.

The play is actually more than just discussions about art – a lot of it is building the atmosphere of a mining town in the depression years (and God, at the end, when the nationalization banner is raised, you can’t help but think how damned badly the people in this industry needed better than what their capitalist overlords had been willing to give them, and what a beautiful new society they hoped for – and, I hope, in some ways, got, after Great Britain took over the mines, and then again, wondering what this country has lost since Old Maggie undid all that), some of it is showing what the class attitudes were like then (and, to American me, explaining why even today English people burn with pride for being working class), and some of it more plot-like – a possible patronage/romance involving Oliver Kilbourn and Helen Sutherland (fictional, apparently) and some issues with Lyon possibly exploiting the miners to advance his own career (not sure if this is true or not). None of it was particularly deep or moving, but it did feel very real, and, you know, I really enjoyed it. And when I left I wanted to go home and cancel all of my nights out and just spend time painting. If it takes just two years to learn draughtsmanship, and if these guys could create they work they did after working the long hours they did, what, really, is my excuse for not being more of an artist? And that is some takeaway to get from a play. Needless to say, this is one I’ll be recommending, and will quickly put on my list of “theater to take out of town visitors” to, because it really was a good night out that needs no apologies for being enjoyable. In fact, I probably ought to get the book it was based on – William Feaver’s Pitman Painters – and maybe a set of acrylics.

(The Pitmen Painters continues at the National Theatre through September 22nd. Afterwards it moves to Newcastle, where it will play at the Theatre Royal for the week commencing September 28, 2009; thereafter it will spend a week each in Edinburgh, Cardiff, Milton Keynes, Salford, Sheffield, Norwich, Bath Plymouth. A version of the play is appearing at the Vienna Volkstheater from the end of April. The play will return to the National December 2nd through January 18th, 2010. More information about Oliver Kilbourn available at the University of Northumbria website; a history of the painters and the creation of a gallery at the Woodhorn Colliery on the Guardian‘s website.)