Archive for October, 2009

Barbican Double Header review – Slung Low, “They Only Come at Night” and Michael Clark Company, “Swamp” and “come, been, gone” (the Bowie/Iggy/Lou Reed dances)

October 31, 2009

Friday night marked a brief return to the world of Dance! Theater! Art!, all three of which I packed into one night at the Barbican. My new job is near Old Street, and, wow! The Barbican is just ten minutes walk from my front door! I decided to take advantage of the early start time of the new Slung Low piece (Visions: They Only Come at Night) and relative late start time of the new Michael Clark piece to see two shows in one night. I’d really enjoyed the previous Slung Low piece I’d seen (“Helium“), and, well, a dance piece inspired by David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed! How could I not go!

I started off the evening by a brief visit to the Barbican’s Curve gallery to see Robert Kusmirowski’s “Bunker.” It’s basically a recreation of a WWII era underground war operations area, with a train track following the curve of the wall and little rooms built inside, such as a toliet area and a command office. Unfortunately I’ve seen a lot of these in real life since moving to England and I didn’t find this very interesting; maybe in America it would have been more “ooh ah.” Possibly worth 5 minutes and free so if you’ve got time to kill before a show, why not, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend a special trip.

Next up was “They Only Come At Night,” which is apparently supposed to be a spooky promenade show that takes advantage of the Barbican’s underground parking area. I can definitely see where their parking garage would be creepy but this show wasn’t. The Slung Low penchant for having participants put on headphones to hear dialogue/monologue was relied upon to the point that it pretty well killed the show for me – it was just too damned wordy – and listening to the “evil doctor” (or whatever he was) go on about his plans for taking over the world (or whatever it was) just kind of put me in a hypnotic trance that set me free from the droning in my ears and let me take in the atmosphere that was surrounding me. The whole thing was remarkably actorless (I think I saw 5 in total – no, 6, as there was also a creeping horror in one room), and the one to one interaction I did have made me think they all need just a bit more work with improv (and possibly more research on vampires in popular culture) to make it all seem more realistic.

Let’s see: short, spoilerless description? You are taken in a group of three to the parking garage, where you are occasionally split up and frequently made to stand inside a circle of salt and put on headphones. The headphones thing happens once before you go in and five times after. Once you will be split up and each have a one on one moment with an actor; if you are lucky, you might get the actor who gives you potato chips. If you get them, feel free to eat them, as you will not need them during the story. There is one actor who is a bit scary if he touches you and you don’t see him coming. Um … it all takes around 40 minutes. There are projections, which are sometimes okay and once fairly good.

Overall, though, this would have been more effective if we had been split up more, if more had been going on inside the car park, if the things we were given somehow came into play later, if the actors interacted with us more, if there had been more reliance on creating atmosphere via something besides listening endlessly to people talking through the headphones, if the last actress had had something bad happen to her on the way out. But they didn’t and it wasn’t and while it wasn’t the worst 40 minutes I’ve spent, it was also skippable. It’s sold out now, but the good thing is you’re not really missing anything. Go see some puppet shows at the Suspense Festival instead, that looks really good.

Unfortunately because the show had run over, we couldn’t go out to Pho Cafe (a bit of a long shot but really yummy) or to Sedap but were instead forced to throw ourselves on the mercy of the food offerings at the Barbican, which were pretty consistently overpriced and underinspiring. That said, for 4 quid I got a bowl of salad topped with two cold salads, one potato and ham, the other quinoa and rice, and it was filling – the quinoa was even enjoyable, though the excess mayonnaise on the potato salad grossed me out and I gave up on it.

Anyway, 7:45 and a drink order later (at least the bar was cheap!), we were in our nice stalls seats in the space-age Barbican Theater for the Michael Clark company’s latest. The breakdown was “Swamp” (music by Wire, then music by Bruce Gilbert), followed by “come, been, gone” (first half Velvet Underground, then, strangely, an interval, then music by David Bowie). “Warm Leatherette” was playing overhead, and I was excited about the evening.

Unsurprisingly, it all turned out a little mixed. The first bit, with dancers in space-age blue or white costumes, seemed relaxed. I found myself focusing on the dancers bodies, noticing that three of the women were almost interchangeably petite, while the third seemed just generally more solid and adult. The men were very bulky, rugby-looking types. Does Clark go for a hyper masculine/feminine look in his dancers? To be sure, they were pleasant to look at, and left me feeling fat and out of shape, but … just trying to figure out what was on his mind. The movement was pleasant and graceful, but not memorable. Ah well, on to the bar and some rock and roll boozing prior to the Velvet Underground section.

This half of “come, been, gone” was, I think, fairly successful, with background images that called to mind the various movies of their live shows. “Venus in Furs” went for some really obvious yet fun SM-y costuming (though the sparkly Zentai suit was much cheerier than scary); “White Light/White Heat” was all about the boogieing. “Heroin” had the single worst costume I’ve ever seen in a dance piece, up there with Bjork’s Academy Awards swan outfit: painfully ugly and obvious. However, the dance itself ended with a little gay silver-trousered sprite perking around on stage in a way that I thought actually captured the joy of getting high that was very much a part of this song, and darned nice after all of the heavy-handed “I stick needles in my body” ick that preceded it. Amd, hey, let’s hear it for dancers in low-rise, skin tight silver pants; the feel was very Andy Warhol’s Factory and I think hit the era pretty well. (“Ocean” was a nap, by the way, but it’s a really slow song so no surprise there.)

The final section was, I think, going to be the most challenging, as Bowie has creating a really solid visual image to accompany his music. Would Mr. Clark be able to rise to the challenge, and maybe go beyond it? Well … the answer was, I’m afraid, no. The worse failure was “Heroes,” where he not only clad the dancers in mini-leather jackets that echoed Bowie’s video, but then insisted on accompanying the performance by having the video itself projected on the back screen, which proved totally distracting, overwhelming the rather modest movement. I find the music really soaring and gorgeous, but the movement was very much on the floor. Bah. This was, however, the worse of the series; “Mass Production” (by Iggy Pop), with its bizarre, two toned (actually three toned but kind of like a bird’s coloring) costumes and exaggerated movement (the dancers leaning sharply backwards and moving very slowly) nicely captured the whole space-age yet still very 70s weirdness that I think represents some of the best of that era’s Glam Rock sound.

Fortunately for the last two songs, “Aladdin Sane” and “Jean Genie,” Clark really got into the story telling and joy of the music. I can’t tell you how much I loved “Aladdin Sane.” It’s a great song with amazing piano in it, and Clark both went for showing the story in the lyrics but also having solo work that played out the riffs of the music – something I’ve tried to do myself in my living room many times but enjoyed seeing a real dancer and a real choreographer tackle on stage. In addition, the throbbing baseline played out as a sort of group march, which suddenly brought to mind the “March of the Montagues and Capulets” from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Rah! The garish orange flame costumes were also really appropriate to the music, carrying across a lot of the weight of the Bowie imagery, perhaps more successful due to the lack of overshadowing video. This all transitioned rather nicely into “Jean Genie,” which had the dancers adding checkered jackets over their orange bodysuits and just really going for the joy of the song.

I have to mention that in the middle of this section, Mr. Clark himself came out and did a strange little dance that just reminded me of Hitchcock making a cameo in one of his movies. Very, very odd; was it for a costume change or were the dancers just incredibly beat?

Anyway, overall I’d consider this a fun night, in part because I really like seeing dance that actually engages a vernacular that means something to me. Abstract music is all really nice, but this music is the music of me (as well as Mr Clark and a lot of the audience), and seeing it danced was great. I wish there’d been more partnering and more leaps and such, though – the movement just generally seemed very atomistic, like it almost didn’t matter that there were so many people dancing on stage, and the random “girl on pointe” moments made me sad for what could have been – if he’d wanted it. Still, it was a lot better than the last thing I saw by Clark, and generally enjoyable. I expect it will be a very popular evening.

(Michael Clark continues through November 7th, 2009. Slung Low continues through November 15th, 2009 but is sold out for the run; return seats may be available. Bunker continues through January, 2010.)

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Early booking for the Bridge project at the Old Vic: Don’t do me any favors!

October 28, 2009

So I’m going through this announcement for the next series of shows at the Old Vic (you can see it here), and I see this quote:

Early Booking Offer: Book for Six Degrees of Separation, As You Like It and The Tempest and receive a 5% discount. Offer valid on all ticket prices, tickets must be booked by Sun 20 Dec 2009 and can only be booked by calling the box office. Not available retrospectively, online or in conjunction with any other offer.

Wow a FIVE PERCENT discount. They’re really rolling out the red carpet for this one, aren’t they? I suspect that every ticket order comes with a free paper cup full of water from the bar downstairs, too.

Exhaustion has set in

October 25, 2009

Have you noticed more activity on here recently than, say, over the summer? Yes, I’ve seen 8 shows in the last two weeks, and fit in a trip to Venice. And I’ve written up every show I’ve seen, a real damned trick given that I’m working a new job that doesn’t leave me time to blog. This has required 1) using my phone as a blogging device 2) carrying a tiny laptop so I can blog on the train 3) staying up late so I can write and 4) writing in the morning before I head out to work. This, by my standards, IS work.

No doubt about it, I am worn out. I will now spend the rest of this week NOT blogging, NOT getting home after 11, and NOT getting too aggravated about how expensive tickets are to the double header I would have really liked to have seen at the Royal Opera House, only I’m not forking out 35 quid to see it. And I’m not going to see Silence again even though it was really, really fun. I’m going to stay home. Well, until Friday, when I’m going to see TWO shows, (count ’em, two) in one day.

With luck, I’ll get a guest review sometime this week, but I am taking a break. I need the sleep.

Review – Money – Shunt (at a space on Bermondsey Street)

October 24, 2009

Well. Money was, to put it bluntly, one of the most boring periods of time I’ve spent in the pursuit of theatrical experiences in a while. A mere 45 minutes in, I could already hear the voice in my head whispering “sound and fury”, and though I held on to hope, it was for nothing. It utterly failed to capture any kind of atmosphere, tell any kind of story, or, frankly, be interesting in even an incoherent way. I’m willing to concede that I might be suffering from a bit of burnout after seeing four shows in four days, but, well, this was the stinker of the bunch, and to be honest it was actually the worst thing I’ve dragged myself through in several months – and without the benefit of a clear way to leave.

The kicker was that I kept expecting that amidst the trouble they’d gone to to create a good atmosphere, there was going to be some kind of payoff, but there just wasn’t. It’s lame when my favorite point of an evening of theater is getting a free glass of cheap champagne and even lamer that my second favorite thing was an opportunity to throw (very light) balls at a particularly irritating performer. Silence: The Musical was a thousand times the show Money was, which is really pathetic given the differences in budgets between the two. Who knows, maybe Clockwork Quartet can do their next show in this space and really make it count for something; as it was, the transformation of the former engine housing in this industrial building was all for naught.

In short: cool set, great lights, fantastic sound system, total waste of time. I don’t think it really warrants any more effort on my part to describe it as I can’t get excited enough about it to make the effort.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, October 23rd, 2009. It continues through December 22nd, though I’m sure you can find much better things to do with your time.)

Review – Silence: the Musical – Imperial Productions at The Curtain’s Up Pub/Baron’s Court Theatre

October 22, 2009

THIS REVIEW IS NOT FOR THE PRODUCTION CURRENTLY AT THE ABOVE THE STAG. The review for that show is here – but you might as well read this as it explains a lot of what I’m talking about in the other review.

NOTE: THIS REVIEW ASSUMES FAMILIARITY WITH THE CHARACTERS OF SILENCE OF THE LAMBS which I knew even though I’d never seen it before ’cause I don’t like scary movies.

It’s not every night that you’re having dinner, casually admiring the hot guy two tables over, then find less than two hours later that you’re now able to say, “Wow! I got to see his junk!” But this was a special night, the night I went to see Silence: the Musical (as in the musical version of Silence of the Lambs), and the sexy, lanky redhead I was admiring was none other than “Buffalo Bill” in the show (Connor Brown in real life), and he had a very special number to sing with a title on the lines of “Would You Fuck Me Now.” And he performed it, ultimately, with his Beardsley print dressing gown (covet!) very much off and his lanky, tattooed, pierced body on. Phoar. Oh, and with his junk tucked between his legs, because, you know, looking like a woman is Bill’s shtick, not that the sharp eye wouldn’t have caught an eyeful (and apparently yummy Mr. Brown’s had more pierced than just his nipples).

And, really, wasn’t it such a rude show? Agent Starling (Charlie Cable) is groped regularly, makes fat jokes, and is mocked mercilessly for her lisp; Hannibal “the cannibal” sings “If I Could Smell Her Cunt.” There is nothing polite about this show in any way, right down to the poodle puppet (about which the less said the better). But really, if you’re not planning on seeing this show and having a good laugh then you’ve picked the wrong play to see – though I doubt anyone who would be attracted to it would be expecting a serious commentary rather than a stick in your eye parody.

I’m actually finding it hard to talk about how very well Silence worked in this tiny space. The show was inventive and fun, from the tap-dancing corpses to the face full of silly string to the use of a cut-out plastic mask for Lecter’s escape scene; but all that wouldn’t have added to a hill of beans if the cast hadn’t been so talented. Agent Starling had the looks and the moxie; while Bill was all sex and shamelessness. But the real star was Tom Murphy as Dr. Lecter himself, because with pipes like that he was a real treat to hear singing. I was reminded of the poor showing at Annie Get Your Gun (and for that matter Carousel). Murphy proved that, despite my fears, there are still apparently actors in London who can sing, though they’re being replaced on the West End with people who need microphones to amplify their tinny voices. And I can promise, you could hear the T that ended every single c**t that came out of his mouth. Mary Martin would have been proud.

I was also pleased that I’d somehow wound up at a musical where the words once again mattered, illuminating plot and character. Unfortunately (and this is my one complaint, though it was a problem far, far too much), in many scenes, especially where the actor had his back to the pillar that demarcated the two sections of audience (the stage was square and we each had a view from one side or the other) you could not hear what was being said, which was a shame as it was often funny and always interesting. It was also a problem for a few of the group scenes and the fault clearly lies on the electric piano, which just needs to be turned down a tad. I realize whoever set the sound levels probably has all of the lyrics memorized, but I don’t, and I would have liked to have heard them.

Overall, this was a brilliant night out (especially at £12 a head and with a two hour running time) and I recommend it heartily as likely the most fun musical on in town right now and CERTAINLY better than anything I’ve seen since Pirates at the Union Theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, October 22nd, 2009. It continues through October 31st. For more information see www.imperialproductions.org. I promise I’ll add in actors’ names once I can find them – any help appreciated as I didn’t get a program.)

Review – Terror 2009: Theatre of Horror and Grand Guignol – Southwark Playhouse

October 22, 2009

Last night I went with J and two friends to see Southwark Playhouse‘s early Halloween offering, “Terror 2009: Theatre of Horror and Grand Guignol.” Back in Seattle I used to attend Open Circle theater’s regular Halloween offering of HP Lovecraft plays, and I was eager to recreate the experience. Apparently a lot of other people were eager for some chills & thrills as the evening was sold out. While I like the energy of a full theater, piling in to the darkened room (supposedly an electrical issue but in fact an artistic decision) was a huge hassle; I don’t like trampling over people to get to a seat, I don’t like being forced to scoot down to the ass end of a 15 person bench when I’ve chosen to sit where I can see, and I don’t like being forced to walk over people in near total darkness to find your own seat.

Things got off to a grand start as the usheress battered to death a “patron” who’d failed to turn off his cell phone. We then progressed to play number one, my favorite of the evening and worth the price of admission alone: Lucy Kirkwood’s “Psychogeography,” which was sort of on the traditional haunted house lines only … way creepier. I don’t want to ruin the fun, but I have to give credit to the amazing design of this piece, which created a full environment for being spooked – sound, visual, touch … even the trains going overhead added to the atmosphere. The lighting design, basically a flashlight, a half-covered lantern, and an overhead light (which was rarely on), was perfect – guiding the audience’s eyes here and there and hiding things very effectively from us. But none of this would have meant much without the great script and the convincing performances (which I can’t credit as I’ve lost my program). The psychological dynamics between the two characters was very believable (after a bit of grinding at the first) and I competely bought their relationship and the tensions within it, which was crucial to making this piece work. High fives to all for a great play.

Next was Mark Ravenhill’s bizarre monologue “The Experiment,” which charted a convoluted tale of torture and amoral behavior. It was uncomfortable and had the possibility of feeling very ugly if the protagonist had seemed more in touch with reality, but fortunately its shifting, Rashomon-like qualities kept me wondering what the real story was all the way through and didn’t affect me much emotionally.

Returning from intermission, we had the very tight drama of Anthony Nielsen’s “Twisted,” a sort of “Silence of the Lamb” jailhouse psychodrama which left me wondering just who was the victim. While I felt the interviewer was too young to be a seasoned psychologist, there’s no doubt that the tension that developed between her and the man she was interviewing became very real, and I found myself very caught up in the action (not to mention trying to work out the puzzle of “what’s really going on here?”).

Afterwards, I actually hustled my ass out of the theater to miss the Neil LaBute “Some White Chick:” extreme sexual violence doesn’t sit well with me. My husband reported that it wasn’t worth staying for, so I’m glad I saved myself the 40 minutes or so. As it was, I had a great evening anyway and really felt this evening was well worth the thirteen quid I shelled out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, October 21st. The last performance is on Saturday October 24th, but be warned: Thursday is sold out and Friday and Saturday probably will, too, so shop now if you are interested.)

Review – Cirkus Cirkor – Sadler’s Wells at the Peacock Theater

October 21, 2009

If you’re looking for a condensed and spoiler-free review, here’s the short version; I had a good time at this inventive, skillful show and would consider it an evening well-spent at say £20 a ticket. Your price point may vary from mine. Continuing on:

LastMinute.com is the doom of me. I go there to randomly cruise their £10 theater offerings and wind up finding shows I’ve never heard about and suddenly notice I’ve blown my budget. In this case, I saw a plug for Cirkus Cirkor and the picture looked good (“Hey, circus!”) then the next thing you know I’d convinced three other people to go and I was buying a membership at Sadler’s Wells to get a discount on my tickets and, well, it did all wind up costing me more than the £20 I was originally planning on shelling out for two tickets, but not that much if you exclude the price of Sadler’s Wells’ membership. Ah well, all in support of an organization I really like, really.

That said, we had a lot of fun last night in our stalls row U seats at the Peacock Theater (a little of the top of the stage was blocked by the balcony but no action took place there so no great loss). As per the last two shows I’ve seen there (including Les Sept Doigts de la Main, another circus troupe), the concept is having a show built around a story that lets the performances shine. I liked Cirkus Cirkor’s throughline – a woman plucked from normality is exposed to strange creatures and situations and winds up having to push herself to realize her dreams. Of course, what it really was was a series of circus acts of the human variety – balancing acts, acrobats, jugglers, aerialists – but with an interesting way of transitioning between acts. It also had very different “characters” from what might think of as circus “types” – an all white clown, two straight people, “the world’s strongest woman and her daughter,” a juggler, and a bizarre hairy-legged troll in a tutu (who pranced around en pointe and was generally weird). Rather than just giving up on tradition altogether, I felt this set-up allowed the group to better maintain their theme, while bending tradition, in a way that better framed their story and made it more believable.

But of course one does not go to the circus to see a play, one goes to be entertained and wowed. My “wow” moments were the athletic and gorgeous trapeze duet with the two women, which showed flexibility, agility, strength (from both of them!) and, most importantly to me, inventiveness in the use of a very tired vernacular.

I also oohed and awed and gasped at the juggler, who performed a thrilling routine (with balls and hoops and pins and two helpers throwing him things in addition to doing headstands and stuff) that utterly focused my attention. It helped that it was done to a solo drum accompaniment that really heightened the tension. In fact, I should offer kudos to the band, whose thoughtful songs helped turn many of the pieces from acts into moments. Circus Contraption may have had crazier songs but Irya’s Playground were far more than accompaniment – not just backing but providing an extra show alongside the main attraction. Really, the evening was better than any circus style show I’ve seen since moving to London (even if, per per my former Cirque friend who sat beside me, the balancing act was wholly derivative of Cirque de Soleil’s “Allegria” – I wouldn’t have known or noticed) and I’m glad I went – as was, I’d assume, the loudly cheering audience. What a change from the limp applause of a normal night at the theater! My guess is that this will be a very successful run, especially given how poor seat availability was for the first week. Get your seats now if you’re interested lest you miss out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 20th, 2009. Circus Cirkor continues through October 31st, 2009.)

Clockwork Quartet’s Chocolate Steampunk Cabaret – Old Horse Hospital

October 16, 2009

Last night I went to the Horse Hospital (near Russell Square tube station & directly across from the Friend at Hand pub) to see what I think was the debut performance of the Clockwork Quartet, in an evening described as a “Chocolate Steampunk Cabaret.” The audience milling outside waiting for the doors to open boded well; in pith helmets, cravats, long skirts & corsets (one even had a bizarre “laser gun” like contraption strapped to his arm which turned out to be a water pistol), it was clear they’d dressed up for the evening. I was in work drag; oh well. I would have preferred to have had my red silk 1888 bustle dress on, but no time to go home and fetch it before the gig.

Inside was a very well set up situation for a cabaret; five or so table facing a stage with a strange engine in the rear middle an an unusual drim kit with pots and pans to the left. Meanwhile, the bar had a glass pipe contraption trickling absinthe (and chartreuse) over sugar cubes and into cut-glass cups below. The prices were fantastic: £2 for port, £1 for juices, and tea (how lovely!) for 50p. I bought a round of port but was then distracted by ladies with cigarette tray full of multi-colored rows of hand-wrapped truffles. Dark chocolate and madeira? White chocolate lemongrass? There were seven options and I wanted them all (and at 50p each, why not!). Ultimately my favorite was the dark chocolate cherry, and I noodled through three or four over the course of the show. What a perfect set up for the evening!

Thirty minutes or so later, the Clockwork Cabaret took the stage. The main group of musicians consists of a cellist, a violinist, a guitarist and a banjo player, all led by a handsome young conductor; there were also a variety of singers and multi-instrumentalists who were normally arranged as two percussionists; one accordion player; and one lady reading. This was all in addition to our “compere” (as she called herself) and primary chanteuse, a lovely, raven haired American who claimed to be from Albertville, Kansas. (There were some three additional men who came onstage later as a magician, a doctor, and a swordsman, but I can’t remember what they played; and at some point a man I hadn’t seen before trundled out behind the strange machinery at the back of the stage.)

The “gimmick” (as it were) was that this was a band that supposedly played in the 2nd class dining car on the London to Dover route (though of course I’m sure that no one was ever employed doing such a thing; much better to have set it on a dirigible). The songs they performed were the stories they used to tell our hostess, done in character by the various performers.

While the songs were modestly interesting and in what I thought was an appropriate steampunk style (two about mad inventors, one a crazed doctor and another a magician), the compositions themselves were weak as were most of the voices that sang them. That said, the men were uniformly better than the women, though, and two of them sang quite well. The best song of the evening was a fascinating one by the doctor (I think it might have been called “The Sorceress’ Wife”) in which he sang of his desperate search to find a cure for his paralytic wife; the chorus featured the two women singing a plea to be saved from death, embodying what he thought she was thinking as she lay there unable to speak. It got a rousing and well-deserved round of applause.

Overall I felt the group came off as full of ideas but needing some work; still, it was not a bad evening. It did make me long for the impeccable musicianship of the Asylum Street Spankers or the miraculous combination of showmanship and trombone playing that was Circus Contraption, but when I first saw those groups they were well beyond the “just starting” phase. I look forward to seeing them in a year or so, only this time I’ll remember to wear my own Victorian finery.

Review – The Comedians – Lyric Hammersmith

October 15, 2009

It was with some trepidation that I headed to the Lyric Hammersmith to see The Comedians. A three hour running time has become a considerable burden to me on a school night and when I’d initially booked the tickets I hadn’t realized seeing the show was likely to wreck me for work the next day. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it at all, and really didn’t right up until I sat in my seat and looked at the program; I was there because the West End Whingers were going, and they tend to have a magical ability to sniff out good shows. In fact, if it hadn’t been for them, I’d never have managed to get in to see Enron. They’re also great company, though I’d brought my own posse along with me (admittedly in part so my American visitor Irene could meet Andrew and Phil). But, well, the Lyric has this thing where the first week of a show (usually) they do tickets at £10, so I figured, hey, if it’s bad, I’ll leave at the interval, and, gosh, I even have two different intervals to pick from! I also knew in my heart of hearts that if the show was good I wouldn’t regret the lost sleep.

First interval came around and I was still a bit on the fence. The show is about six men who have been going to night school to learn how to be comedians. I saw in the set up a bit of “The Pitman Painters,” with a lovable teacher (Matthew Kelly) who just wants to pass on a bit of his learning to a roomful of “characters,” with likely life lessons to follow at the end to send us all home with a smile. I figured the story would be mostly playing off of the comedy of the various “types” in the class, with a bunch of laughs in the middle during the “now we show our stuff at the comedy club” act before the heartwarming finale. (No, I didn’t read the program.) But I was wholly confused by what the types were supposed to be, as the accents were completely meaningless to me. I wasn’t able to tell the Northern Irish guy from the Republic of Ireland guy or actually from … well, any of the other guys except for the one who was supposed to be Jewish (and what was funny about that also passed me by). Being American was really working against me, and I wasn’t getting their casual jokes at all. I felt at a complete cultural loss. I was also kind of irritated by the overacting of Gethin Price, who as “teacher’s pet” David Dawson kept forgetting to interact with the other characters and instead kept acting toward the fourth wall. (“Hello​! You’re very sexy in an Alan Cumming kind of way, but would you please stop acting like you know we’re all out here and get on with being in the play? It ruins my developing fascination with you.”)

The one thing I did understand, and that got me back in the door after the end of first interval, in the face of the exhaustion I’d have to face the following day, was the drama that developed when the judge for the performances (Bert Challoner) appeared just after it was revealed that he and the teacher were arch rivals who had completely different ideas of how to be funny. Suddenly the students, who all wanted professional careers, were faced with failing their real test: getting a job. After getting a speech from him about what a comedian’s approach ought to be, suddenly it became clear that every one of them was going to try to fix his routine to better please the judge.

This conflict made me quite enthused to see Act Two, in which the students one by one (well, and once by two) went up on stage and did their best to wow the judge. This is when it finally became clear to me that I was watching an extremely good group of actors, because they were actors, not standup comedians, and yet for each of their acts I totally bought into what they were doing and the tension they were feeling. The best of the acts for me was the two-man routine Reece Shearsmith (as Phil Murray) and Mark Benton (as Ged Murray) did, when suddenly Phil, who’d been “the one who wasn’t funny” earlier, turned on his brother Ged and insisted he tell a racist joke that went completely against the philosophy of their professor – but that he felt sure would amuse the judge. The power of the moment when his jovial, gentle brother turned to him and said, “No, YOU tell the joke” and then physically moved him to a place where he would have to … words fail me. It was pure theater. I completely bought the characters and the situation. Admittedly, at the very beginning of the act, all I thought about was how pretty Michael Dylan’s blue eyes were, which wasn’t really about getting into his character so much as getting into him, but grab your pleasures where you will, I say. Anyway, by this act I was sold on the play, and the whole question of how to get a decent night’s sleep was moot; I was making the Ultimate Sacrifice and was going to call a cab after the show.

During the second intermission, I had a long conversation with an old guy who’s seen the show in its original incarnation in the 70s. According to him, the jokes the guys tell during the second act actually just aren’t funny, and people back them knew it. He said he was really surprised that people were laughing during the performance. I was, too, but I was confused because to me they almost all of the jokes seemed really offensive – I don’t see where being Irish or Catholic or Jewish is a comedy item and there’s no laughs for me in a joke about beating your wife up in a bar. But per Old Guy, this kind of humor was actually standard standup material in those days, especially up north (where this play was set), so the format itself was unsurprising – only the jokes were really flat. Of course there’s the question of the act the teacher’s pet performed, about which I’ll say little other than I thought about it during the De Frutos catastrophe the next night, but that had to be its own special moment.

Act three was, well, really not the heartwarming huggy-feely takeaway I was expecting and a lot more of the “this is going to get dark” my husband anticipated. There is a bit of a message about artistic integrity, but the whole thing is couched in a rather nauseating story that ends in a Nazi death camp, so any chance of a “feel good” is blown out of the water. Still, as we all walked out, a bit dazed and blasted, my thought was: what an amazing ensemble cast I just saw perform. Nearly three straight hours and I didn’t begrudge them a minute; once act two started I was bought in all the way. While I was too culturally confused to be able to see it in the big stars and lights the West End Whingers did, I’d definitely say this is a show worth catching.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, October 11th, 2009. It continues through November 14th. I ate at Akash Tandoor beforehand and can highly recommend their 20 quid two person combo plate.)

Review – A Tribute to Diaghilev (four original works by MacGregor, Maliphant, Cherkaoui, De Frutos) – Sadler’s Wells

October 14, 2009

Sadler’s Wells’ “In the Spirit of Diaghilev” program offered quite a show – four world premieres by four different choreographers in one night! First up was Wayne MacGregor’s “Dyad 1909” (which I kept reading as “dryad”), influenced by the polar expeditions taking place at this time. The piece opened with a man in a parka collapsing on stage, but then moved into the typical, non-narrative motion that is his style. The three set pieces seemed at time to be ice, in bergs or cubes; at other times they showed movies (scenes from the remaining explorers’ huts, then later what looked like deep sea fish). I saw in the films parallels between man’s desire to explore as expressed 100 years ago and now, but a Diaghilev connection wasn’t apparent to me.

The movement seemed to reflect themes of the movies. Sometimes it was the struggle to survive; sometimes I saw the movements of strange fish. At times I saw echoes of Merce Cunningham’s “Beach Birds.” I wound up focusing on the dancers’ feet, which a few times I saw guesturing as expressively (and sexily) as hands might. All of the members of my group enjoyed this work enthusiastically (though reports from the next night cited tech failures); Olafur Arnalds shoul in particular be congratulated for his wonderfully atmospheric score.

The 2nd piece, Russell Maliphant’s “AfterLight,” was so obviously a tribute to Nijinski I didn’t have to read the program notes to figure it out. A man with his hair held down against his head (more in a stocking than a turban) whirled on stage, his arm held gracefully in front of him. His movement was sinuous; he seemed completely unaware of the audience. Flickering light and shadows played on his body from overhead. As he moved through them, it seemed that what we were seeing was some memory of Nijinski. Then, as the circle of light grew smaller and the effect of the flickering became dizzying, it was as if an old movie of him dancing had been brought to life. Often solo pieces have a habit of falling flat or being gimmicky but Daniel Proietto totally deserved the enthusiastic applause he received last night.

The lights were up just long enough for a live Twitter update, then back down again for “Faun.” Behind the stage a sylvan scene; in front, a barely clad tousled blond man napped on the stage. As Debussy’s score slithered up from the pit, he stretched his arms, his legs, he slowly started to work all of his body as if remembering what it felt to be alive was a daily joy of rediscovery.

Then, inevitably, a woman appeared on stage; seemingly a spirit of the woods herself and accompanied by gorgeous Indian-style music. I imagined us in the woods of the Ramayana, where Sita and Ram lived after being expelled from the palace. She also rolled and stretched, picking herself up on her arms with her legs arched over her back; displaying a gorgeous athleticism. With her powerful thighs, she looked less like an underfed waif (as do some ballerinas) rather than a gymnast – much more of a force to be reckoned with, and the Faun’s equal.

Next, of course, was a long, long duet with the nymph and the faun. In the way their limbs intertwined I saw the recreation of erotic Hindu temple carvings – legs wrapped around waists, one head serving a different pair of arms, body against body until you no longer knew what belonged to whom. I found the delicate intimacy of this movement quite heady, especially the way they used their feet both to balance against each other and then lift each other, just carefully, carefully lifting like a pair of circus performer would. And it wasn’t a male-dominated piece, either – Daisy Phillips was also carrying James O’Hara on her body, powered with her strong legs. This was no pair of city-bred lovers restrained by their social ties – these two were pure animal sensuality and an utter pleasure to watch. Such a treat!

Then after the second intermission, it was time for the final work of the night, by dark horse Javier de Frutos. Fortunately I remembered to read the program before this piece started, which is a must if one is to make any sense of it. “Eternal Damnation to Sancho and Sanchez,” it’s called, and it claims to be inspired by Jean Cocteau. I was warned (by the notes) that this piece featured fertility rites, a lecherous pope, a prostitute, sexual assault and murder, but still somehow it managed to both rise above (and fall below) my expectations, starting when the curtain rose and the backdrop was revealed to be three walls covered with semi-artistic pornographic drawings. As I watched the characters introducing themselves and then the pope blundering about on stage, suddenly I made sense of the underlying chanting I could hear: in Spanish, “Blessed Maria, pray for us sinners …” Oh dear. I’m not Catholic (obviously), but I got the feeling that this was probably hitting a lot of buttons for those who were, and likely for anyone who identifies strongly as Christian (what with the rape and buggery taking place on stage – though there was no actual nudity). As the shrieks of dismay from the female dancers rose, a few audience members trickled out … and then we started to move to the, er, climax of the show, and I think some twenty had fled from the stalls. Did they want to see a woman strangled with rosary beads and watch an execution by electrocution? Probably not, and perhaps the round of booing (a first for me to hear in London!) was due to anger at the violence.

I have to applaud this piece for providing such a truly Diaghilev-like ending to the evening. It set out to be offensive and rude and succeeded marvellously. I couldn’t rip my eyes away from the catastrophe of violence taking place in front of me. But what’s sad is that it actually seemed to fail to live up to the satire Cocteau was aiming for – we got ick and neon, but a little more focus on the scheming mentioned in the synopsis and the addition huge cup-fulls of humor would have made for a much better piece, both more watchable and more interesting. Still, I would have wanted to have kept all of the blasphemy intact – Diaghilev wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Overall, my congratulations to Sadlers Wells for a truly memorable night! If Sergei had been turning in his grave, it would have only been to get a better view.

(This review is for the premiere performance, which took place on Tuesday, October 13th, 2009. It continues through the 17th.)