Archive for November, 2009

Review – the James Earl Jones’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – Novello Theatre

November 27, 2009

In a year full of mega-hype shows, the only one I really got excited about was the “all black” production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. There’s a lot of reasons why this wet my whistle way more than any star-crossed Hamlet. First, a cast with nothing but African-American (and Afro-Carribean) actors – my God, haven’t I been waiting for that for a long time! And (second) they were in a show by my favorite American playwright! And (third) in a play by this author that I’d never seen before! AND AND AND (fourth) with Voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, in a starring role! Woo! No way was I missing this!

Of course, with big names like Jones and Phylicia Rashad, tickets weren’t going to be cheap – when they finally went on sale I dickered and dickered, trying to find some I could manage. At last I found a deal to get £10 off seats during previews, so I took £20 seats in the Grand Balcony and felt lucky to find them. (I actually got my seats on, FYI.) And, as it turns out, the Grand Balcony views were just fine, even though the actors were rather small – but since most of the action was centered on the stage, once the woman in front of me finally sat back in her chair, I could see everything.

HOWEVER (note to management) the Novello had SOME NERVE letting about 20 teenagers in 15 minutes into the show, in a dialogue heavy scene that was UTTERLY DISTURBED by all of the clomping and “excuse me’s” and standing up et cetera. The show started late as it was; LATE ARRIVALS SHOULD NOT BE SEATED UNTIL THE INTERVAL. Teach them right and they’ll remember next time; the Novello owes it to the rest of us to respect our right to enjoy the tickets we paid for and showed up on time to use.

The plot is as follows (no major spoilers): married couple Maggie (Sanaa Lathan) – born poor and desperate not to be that way again – and Brick (Adrian Lester) – an alcoholic former football player – are gathered at Brick’s family’s plantation house to celebrate “bootstrapped my way to money” “Big Daddy” (James Earl Jones)’s 60th birthday. Maggie’s trying to find some safe ground between her husband, who doesn’t love her anymore but whom she loves desperately, and Brick’s brother and sister-in-law, who are scheming to remove Brick (and Maggie) from Big Daddy’s will and get it for their own huge brood of children. Big Daddy cuts his birthday celebrations short in order to try to get to the root of Brick’s drinking problem; by the end of the play, everyone’s dealing with the lies they’ve been telling each other and the compromises you have to make in order to get on with life.

While the trope of having this take place within a black family worked fine for me, unfortunately the acting itself wasn’t able to convince me of the “reality” of the story. The weak point was without a doubt Sanaa Lathan, who monologued for nearly all of the first act and left me looking at my watch as the minutes headed toward an hour and the dramatic tension failed to manifest. I can’t help but wonder if she didn’t understand the character herself, because she appeared to be nothing more than a sex kitten who wasn’t getting any. I certainly couldn’t muster any sympathy for her character, and found even less for the actress after listening talk unconvincingly about her (Maggie’s) time as a debutante. Afterwards, J and Amy and I all practiced talking about our time as debutantes, to see if we could do it better. I realize this was a preview production, and Sanaa had taken over from Anika Noni Rose (of the Broadway cast), but it was just bad and dull and enough to make me say to not bother seeing the show.

Adrian Lester, as Brick, was also new to the production, taking over the role from Terrence Howard. My biggest problem with Lester was that he just didn’t sound the least bit Southern. He sounded like he’d grown up in California. Well, no, this wasn’t my biggest problem with him – he also just seemed to be going through the paces, not in a way appropriate for the role of an alcoholic, but in a way that made me think he hadn’t really got into his role, either. Though he was generally rather flat – or silent – he really came to life in the long scene in act two in which he and Big Daddy thrash out just what has gone wrong with Brick’s head.

Jones himself tended to be a bit to comic and heavy in his role as patriarch, lacking the casual fluency at rudeness that the character needed to come together, but he was an expert at playing cat and mouse with his character’s beloved son – for me, this scene was the heart of the whole play and the section that made me not feel like I’d totally wasted my evening on a dud show. Unfortunately, Phylicia Rashad also failed to hold up her end of the sky; even though her Big Mamma is a lesser role, her upset at Big Daddy’s rudeness just wasn’t convincing.

I always wonder if TV and movie actors really get what it takes to make a role work on stage; this evening made me feel like, too frequently, they don’t. This seems to be less of an issue for English actors, who (despite frequently biffing American accents) tend to have pretty good training on the stage no matter where they earn their fame in the end; but my countrymen let me down on this evening. I just can’t think it was Mr. Williams; his later plays are often heavy handed, but this is from his golden era and I expected nothing but the best. I guess I’m going to have to go back and rent the movie so I can have another opportunity to see the text performed and see if Williams can be redeemed in others’ hands. Tonight, though possibly worth the £20 I spent, was too limp and unconvincing for me to feel anything but disappointed. The heavy handed lighting design (MUST we see the overhead fan every time someone has a “moment”), the pathetically literal sound design (Brick does not need to be accompanied by football noises while talking about his past glories) … it all makes me think responsibility for the failures of this show must fall squarely on the shoulders of director Debbie Allen. With such a long run scheduled (it goes until April 10th), I do hope the performances improve. Otherwise … wait until a better version comes by. This cat fell off the roof long before the three hour running time was over and it did NOT land on its feet.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on November 25th, 2009. Opening night is December 1st. A review for the Broadway performance can be seen on the New York Times‘s website. The considerably more positive West End Whingers‘ review is also available. I side with the Times on this one.)


De Frutos is banned by the BBC; too offensive for Christmas

November 26, 2009

Wow! The last act of the Diaghilev tribute I saw in October has been judged so offensive that the BBC won’t show it. I am so amused. Here are some quotes:

The BBC has abandoned plans to screen a ballet featuring a deformed Pope who rapes nuns which it had announced as one of the highlights of its Christmas schedule. [I don’t know, it would be a highlight of a sort to be sure.]


…. the de Frutos sequence climaxes in what has been described as “the most graphic scenes of sex and violence seen on the dance stage”. [This seems like a bit of an exaggeration. Maybe they don’t see much modern performance.]


De Frutos believes his work would have met with Diaghilev’s approval. He said: “He wasn’t bothered by political correctness. Those were the glory days when people would sleep with you to get a job. And some of the best slept with Diaghilev.”

On my side, the piece was difficult to sit through. On the other hand, I felt like I was watching history being made, and now even more so. It was memorable. It was enthusiastically offensive. It was the baddicle. In some ways, it achieved what it set out to do so very well that I think it put many other merely limp works to shame.

Review – ROH2 Firsts 2009 (Nicola Conibere, Mualla, Aurelie, El Toro Theater) – Linbury Studio

November 25, 2009

November! Firsts! This series of performances is a great way to see a wide variety of performers you’ve probably never seen before, at the wallet friendly price of £5 a ticket. I’m a big fan (went the last two years) and was really looking forward to this years series, though I could only go to one show.

Well, alas! The first piece of the evening, “Count One,” was as dreadfully unwatchable and pretentious as I had feared. Picture this: A person walks on the stage, holds their hand out as if waiting for it to be shook by someone else, then turns to the audience (as if about to take a bow), then returns to the wings. This is repeated, only as he is standing there with his hand extended, a second person walks forward, shakes their hand, then turns their back to the first person and extends their own hand as if expecting someone to shake it. They both turn to face the audience and then walk back to the wings. Now repeat with a third person. Now repeat with a fourth person. NOW LOSE YOUR WILL TO LIVE. I did. I realized there was little chance of anything happening I was going to care about in the next thirty minutes (THIRTY MINUTES!) and put my head on my husband’s shoulder and free associated in the dark. The description was sadly quite accurate and lived up to my fears of what the piece would be: something that was a much better idea to think about than to watch.

After this there was a long break where my three companions and I discussed our reaction to the first show while the stage was being prepared for the next. We’d all hated it; comparisons were made to Fram and other notable catastrophes. I’d wished I’d gone ahead and stayed outside for the first piece and then returned for the second and saved my energy and enthusiasm. Three of us decided that we were going to leave at the interval; all of us were put off by seeing a work about football (“An Unorthodox 1-2,” see description belwo), but, I think, in our hearts we’d just lost our faith in the curator’s ability to choose something that didn’t stink, and while Amy was willing to stay on for the fourth piece, all of us were having serious motivation issues.

Then it was time for Ilona Jäntti in “Muualla,” a charming piece in which a performer interacts with a screen that has animations projected on it. Her shadows on the screen morph into strange creatures that follow her around; boxes expand and contract, squishing her inside. Eventually she climbs a rope, chasing a red creature and getting caught in the forms on the screen as they fall apart and reform; eventually she is in a sort of rope trapeze, hanging sideways, spinning, walking on the screen as the images flip into a sort of Escherian reality … it was all very fun and very modern feeling, and while the rope work wasn’t particularly spectacular (got that at my circus performances earlier in the year), it did really fit the piece. Congrats to Tuula Jeker and Ilona for making a really bright spot in the night; it totally justified my attendance.

That said, the feeling of wanting, not just my money back, but to be compensated for my wasted time with the first piece had utterly corrupted my sense of experimentalism, and when the interval came, I went home, as did (as it turns out) the other three members of my party. Hopefully my friends won’t lost their trust in me as someone who can choose a good way to spend the evening; as it stands, I no longer feel compelled to check out anything else in the series after this catastrophe. Well, I would go, but next time I will trust myself and just wait it out in the bar, or get seats on an aisle so I can make a quick escape if necessary.

(This review is for a performance that took place on November 24th, 2009. It will be repeated November 25th.)

Here is a description of the program in case it falls off the ROH website:

Count One uses a simple choreographic structure to organize moments of everyday exchange and interaction through a series of physical motifs that are repeatedly ‘opened’ and ‘closed’ by its four performers. These episodes develop to embrace elements of theatrical spectacle, inviting an array of relationships and interactions to come in and out of play. A lighthearted, evolutionary journey from handshake to costumes and lights. ‘A quietly affecting piece; funny, clever and infuriating.’ Resolution!
Muualla/Elsewhere explores the possibilities of combining animation, circus and dance in live performance. Initiated and designed by naturalized Finnish architect and animator Tuula Jeker and choreographed and performed by the extraordinary Finnish aerialist Ilona Jäntti, the interaction between animation and performer creates a dialogue between the real and the virtual world; shadows morph into new creatures and nothing is what it seems.
An Unorthodox 1-2 was commissioned as part of a residency at Blue Square Premier football club Barrow AFC, and combines field recordings, spoken word and improvised music to explore the aural environment of a non-league football ground. Using live voice processing, video projections and graphic notation, Aurelie capture the unique aura of match day in a South Cumbrian town and present an idea of ‘the game’ as a performance in its own right.
One man’s world crumbles when his girlfriend leaves…Lovedrunk is a beautiful piece of highly visual theatre that fuses together live performance, physical theatre, digital video and emotive music to explore falling out of love. Darkly comic and highly inventive, this is physical theatre storytelling for the YouTube generation. Created with the support of Arts Council East.

Tickets: £5

Review – Sweet Charity – Menier Chocolate Factory

November 23, 2009

Part of the reason “last minute” for me means anything with less than two weeks of advance notice is because long, long ago, in a galaxy months and months away, in which I can barely IMAGINE the seasons will have changed and the clocks will have rolled back (or forward, I always forget) by the time the event in question comes to pass, I received an invitation from the West End Whingers to join them at the Menier Chocolate Factory for Sweet Charity, and I said yes. Now, this wasn’t a full invite with the gang, it was a “get it yourself” deal, so I haven’t quite made it into the upper echelons of Bloggerdom yet, but, hey, at least I got the email. (I can thoroughly piss off people that produce fringe shows and the occasional rabid Jesse Buckley fan, but mostly I’m a big nobody with time on her hands who really, really enjoys seeing shows with people who love the theater. And writing run on sentences. And sentence fragments. Sometimes.)

ANYWAY so as I was saying, I bought tickets to see Sweet Charity months and months ago, for basically two reasons: 1) the Whingers were going and 2) it was at the Menier, where old musicals come back to life, done full-sized and right in your lap. Now, sometimes the musicals bite and all you can thing about is how small and close the chairs are; but the number of winners (like the lovely A Little Night Music and the hysterical Forbidden Broadway) outweigh the losers, so hey, I figured, I’ll fly Air Menier again – much like EasyJet, you’re more often a winner than a loser (especially at 25 quid a ticket). And I do REALLY like musicals, even though Sweet Charity is not in my book of big love – but I’ve only ever seen the movie version, and who knows what wonders a live performance might have?

Well, the first wonder I would say has got to be the leading lady, Tamzin Outhwaite, who actually sold me on the role of Charity in a way that world-weary, wise old Shirley Maclaine just couldn’t manage. She was both fresh and happy and believable in her own self-deception and neverending surprise at just how very crappy and also wonderful life can be. Her key philosophy – “Without love, life would have no purpose” – actually did not sound sappy coming from her. I also found her extremely charismatic – I tracked her constantly on stage – and a real comedienne (especially hysterical in the closet scene at Vittorio’s place). I got a real kick out of her “tribute to Fosse” dance in the same scene and, well, mostly found it amazing that she could make me buy into a character I’d just written off as as ridiculous as Desdemona. Instead, I was seeing traces of a young Blanche DuBois – the innocent before everything goes south. She’s really got what it takes to make this production live.

Was the next wonder the band or some other member of the cast? Well … the band actually was leaving me (in my princely row D seats) somewhat deaf. All of the brass REALLY put the sound across, but my right ear was ringing after the show. That said, they made the score come to life in a sassy way that did a lot to make this aged music sound bright, like a vintage automobile that’s been fully restored to shiny penny glory. And the backing cast, well, they were dead in the eyes for “Hey, Big Spender” – but great singers and a perfect look for their roles, a real variety of faces and body types that really had the “normal girls doing an unusual job” feel to them – but, gotta say, great legs on the lot of them. And yet … there was something just a little bit too tatty about their costumes for me (as a connoisseur of 60s fashion). The era still had a lot more tailoring, and a few more darts and finishing would go a long ways to make the women look more “of the era” and less “we whipped these up in about two hours flat, isn’t the fabric divine?” (I especially wish Charity could get a workover of her red fringed dress – the neckline just wasn’t right, and she’s so perfect in every other dress, I figure, forget the fact that her character’s not got the money to look nice and invest in a really gorgeous outfit so we can all sit there and ooh-ahh like she deserves.)

Though there are many things to praise … well, this show was written by Neil Simon, and I famously don’t care for his plays and their shallow wit. The comedy scenes were really good (my favorite being the one at the diner where both Charity and her boyfriend sit back to back at adjoining booths), but the drama … just wasn’t dark enough. And for the show itself, well, it was enjoyable, but it didn’t really move me the way I wanted to be. This time I couldn’t blame it on Charity. I think maybe this is just not one of the musicals that resonates for me – the story didn’t blow me out of the water like Cabaret, the songs don’t slay me like Anything Goes. It’s a classic, but … not my favorite musical. However, I think this is going to be a very successful run, and if you like it, you should probably book before it sells out.

Even though I didn’t love it, the fact of the matter is, I still walked out (slightly sloshed and a good hour after it ended) singing the songs I’d just heard. That hasn’t happened to me … well, excluding “Silence: The Musical,” it was the first time all year, and by those standards, I’d say that this was a damned fine way to spend a dark, miserable, wintery London afternoon – in a theater surrounded by cheerful trumpets and singing strumpets.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Sunday, November 23rd, 2009. Sweet Charity continues through March 7th, 2010. The Whingers’ review is here. Book now if you want to go.)

November Ballet Spectacular – Royal Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty & Mixed Bill (Agon, Sphinx, Limen)

November 18, 2009

Ballet five times in eight days? Why not, I say, why not? And with the highly touted presentation of Birmingham Royal Ballet’s newly choreographed “E=MC2” (in their “Quantum Leaps” program) and the opportunity to see a fancy (and usually expensive) story ballet from the Opera House stalls for 60 quid (Sleeping Beauty), how could I say no? Then, well, new Macgregor at the Royal Ballet, and a new(ish) story ballet (Cyrano), and, er, a commitment to see the Royal Ballet’s mixed bill program twice, and hey! It could happen to anyone, really.

First, the Agon/Sphinx/Limen triple bill, which I saw twice (Friday November 13th, cast list here, and Tuesday, November 17th,
cast list here). “Agon” reminded me how very difficult Balanchine really is – but only the second time I saw it, when the male dancers failed to hit the right sense of unity, I twice saw people adjust themselves after failing to hit their mark, and the whole thing generally smelt like “work” instead of “dance.” The long duet toward the end was particularly different; whereas on Friday, Acosta seemed somewhat bored and workmanlike as he manipulated his partner through a series of movements (including a “drunk ballerina” sequence in which she keeps falling into the splits and being lifted up again), the same duet seemed forced and uncomfortable Tuesday, as if the dancers hadn’t done it enough to forget about what they were doing and just do it. I felt every technical detail of how to make a catch and how to do a turn was exposed to the naked eye, and I didn’t like it.

On Friday, I got caught up in the weirdness of the extremely late 1950s Stravinsky music and the great deep drums (and – was that xylophones?), though I wasn’t entirely able to get caught up in the experience of the dance due to the off-putting nature of my far right seats (cutting off a quarter of the stage). Still, in retrospect, I realize Friday’s cast was pretty well hitting the mark, though in general I think Pacific Northwest Ballet does this dance better.

“Sphinx” … well. Much as “Agon” was as purely late 1950s as Peggy Guggenheim’s house, “Sphinx” was totally late 70s. The costumes were Tron meets Stargate with some headbands thrown in for good measure, and … God, I saw it twice, and I just found it the most unspeakably pretentious thing I’ve seen since the horrid “Pierrot Lunaire“. There’s a bit where “Anubis” is dancing in circles around “The Sphinx” and “Oedipus,” and I just thought … why why why? Who cares about what they’re doing? Why are they acting like they’re performing in a silent movie? Why does he keep balancing her on his shoulder when it’s so clearly a wiggly place to sit? When is there going to be some dancing that actually matters? Why was this revived at all? The music wasn’t bad but … never again.

Finally, Wayne Macgregor’s new ballet, “Limen,” my last and best hope for great new ballet of the year and the reason why I was at this program twice.

Well. I’m sorry to say, but it looks like David Bintley, about whom I knew almost nothing before this week, has utterly stolen the hot ballet trophy away from Wayne this year. (Let’s be clear: much like the search for the world’s best gelato, the search for the hot ballet of the year is one in which the searcher will always win. Still, I was surprised.) Wayne gave us … er, boxes and lines on the floor, and a cool projection, and good music … but the dance was … kinda out of the same box of stuff he usually uses, the great extensions, the butts sticking out, but without the cool “breaking the boundaries” moves he’s thrown in to spice it up. In fact, with almost no partnering in this ballet, it just felt a wee bit sterile.

Except, of course, for the utterly gorgeous middle bit in which a man and a woman did the most amazing work. Both times I saw the same cast, he black and she white, looking like yin and yang together … the movement utterly enchanting, in some ways almost a response to the Balanchine that opened the evening, making the manipulations worked on the ballerina earlier seem so heavy and coarse … now delicate, lifting, bending, flowing, working together as one, his strength, her grace and flexibility … perfect.

And then it was time for the big black wall with the winking blue lightbulbs to show up and end the dance, and I found myself thinking, “E=MC2 was it, I’m so glad I went, I wish I’d seen it twice”, and bam, the end of the night, the end of the ballet year, let down but glad I’d hedged my bets and run off to see BRB earlier in the week.

The day before my second viewing of the mixed bill I went to see Sleeping Beauty, and I really am just not going to be able to say too much about it as, well, it was dry. I realize this production is some kind of touchstone for the British ballet public but for me I about choked on the dust rolling off of the sets and costumes, which reminded me of some little girl’s room in her grandmother’s house, circa 1950, pastel green on pastel pink on pastel purple BAH. The ballet itself has almost no plot and is just really a set piece for some tricksy dance moves, so if you want emotion and not canned Petipa “let’s show of the technique of the dancers,” then it’s going to be Cyrano for you. Admittedly, even the New York Times’ reviewer criticized Tamara Rojo for her rather stiff Aurora, and perhaps this was part of the problem; I could go “ooh, she stayed on that balance almost until infinity,” but I didn’t really care. It was just like watching … the circus or something. I wanted to be involved, like the way I am when my heart breaks for Giselle, but I wasn’t.

Anyway, in the dances of the various fairies in the prologue, I did get quite a kick out of the technical prowess and charm of Sian Murphy as the “Fairy of the Woodland Glade” (she stands en pointe with her supporting leg slightly bent and does two kicks in front, then pulls up into an arabesque – did I get the fairy right?) – as well as the lightfooted (and charismatic) Iohna Loots as “Fairy of the Song Bird,” and of course I liked the bit with Puss & Boots, and the Big Bad Wolf and Red Riding Hood, and of course (I must say!) the Bluebird pas de deux in the final act … but the damned “vision” scene in the second act was just SO LONG I was running out of energy to be there any more. AAARGH. And I didn’t enjoy the dancing in that scene, either. I mean, I saw this ballet done by Pacific Northwest Ballet the year they debuted it, I didn’t enjoy it then, and still I went back. It’s like I don’t learn. It’s still the same ballet. I might just need to see it with a different ballerina in the lead, though as expensive as story ballets are at Royal Ballet it’s unlikely I’ll go back to see this in less than five years. The fact remains that it needs to be massively freshened up and redone for the 21st century instead of being such a museum piece.

Ah well, but if you look at the net result, of five nights of ballet, I did get something to enjoy every night – but for this round, it was Birmingham Royal Ballet that I enjoyed more, and ultimately David Bintley’s choreography that cranked my chain. I can’t wait to see what 2010 will have to offer!

Review – Nation – National Theatre

November 15, 2009

I am afraid I did not enjoy Nation. Perhaps I went for the wrong reasons: my best friend loves Terry Pratchett, and I loved Melly Still’s direction of Coram Boy. Both of us frequently love children’s theater.

But, but, but.

The story, for those who don’t know it (I didn’t): it’s roughly 1850 in a parallel universe (one in which there was no Queen Victoria, but it’s still basically this world), and a tidal wave has left 15-ish Mau (Gary Carr, very solid acting and very YUM) the last person alive on his South Pacific island. The same tidal wave casts 13 year old English girl Daphne (Emily Taaffe, energetic, lovable, and thus clearly also doing a nice job) on the island along with the ship’s parrot Milton (charmingly portrayed by Jason Thorpe). The kids become friends and have to start making a new life and culture, a new nation, on what’s left to them of the old – the wreckage of Mau’s people and Daphne’s ship. They are joined by other people from more distant islands, eventually, and conflict develops from Mau’s attempt to create a truly new world and the other people’s wishes to stick to their old. Then, in a more traditional plot mold, a scary other survivor of the shipwreck has become the leader of an island of cannibals … and (for reasons clearly having to do with “keeping the story moving forward” and little else) wants to see Daphne dead. Of course he will have to come to the island she is on and have a showdown at some point. The show is just that kind of surprising.

For some reason that I can’t help but feel has to do with the “children’s play” the National chose to make of this book, there is rather a lot of singing and dancing, and this is pretty much where it started to lose me. The singing, while in tune, is just flat out horrible and insipid and ACK and does NOT add anything to the show.

Even worse and absolutely insulting is the horrible dancing they pastiched in. Parallel universe or not, this show should have really made a bit of effort to pull in actual Pacific Island dance traditions instead of some half-baked crap that didn’t have a bit of nod to the real thing other than grass skirts. Pacific Island dance is so amazing, and so fantastic for men to perform, that it was a fist in the gut to watch this fakey-fakey hoodoo garbage on stage. Maybe I’m a little protective of my Hawaiian compatriots and the tradition they are a part of (Tahitian dance also being a big favorite and SO fun to watch), but this was like some horrible “white man does all-cultures-are-the-same” BS that just stuck in my craw. The sad thing was that if they had gone for the real thing, this show could have become genuinely special and given something truly unique back to London theater audiences. Instead, it was … bad.

Unfortunately, rather than just a few awful moments of dance polluting a great night, instead what happened is that most of the first act just wandered around aimlessly, not pulled down by the dance all that much because, in fact, it just didn’t have very far down to go. Story-wise, the kids worked through the language issue; someone has a baby; there are discussions about God. It was like having someone read through the various chapters of Robinson Crusoe as he figures out how to solve one puzzle after another. There were no fresh insights to the characters or moments of lasting beauty; it was just boring. I thought about leaving after the interval, but it wasn’t actually awful … and my row J center upper balcony seats had a nice view … and I wanted to be able to finish my review … and I didn’t want to insult my friends by leaving … so I stayed. (PaulInLondon did not. However, most of the audience appeared to stay, so clearly few people found it intolerable.)

Anyway, the second act moved a little better, as a lot of the threads of the first came to fruition (and there was a magnificent duel on a boat that took full advantage of everything the National has to offer technically), but it couldn’t wash the taste of disappointment out of my mouth. Kids plays can be better than this. With more than a week until the official opening of the play (November 24th), here’s hoping Mark Ravenhill cuts a good 20 minutes from the first act and somebody pumps up the dance scenes. Otherwise … I’d say if you’re looking for a fun family night out, hit the Hackney Empire’s Aladdin panto, which will be entertaining from start to finish, feature songs that engage your brain, and cost a hell of a lot less than this did. Otherwise, a rousing game of charades played at home will likely provide better entertainment and prove more memorable in the long run.

(Nation continues at the National Theatre until March 28th, 2010. This review is for a preview performance seen on November 14, 2009. There is some swearing: “asshole,” “bugger,” possibly “fuck” and definitely “is a frog’s ass watertight.” PaulInLondon‘s review is now up.)

Review – Cyrano – Birmingham Royal Ballet at Sadler’s Wells

November 13, 2009

Tonight’s Cyrano at Sadler’s Wells was the long-sought for Holy Grail of ballet: a new story ballet that was good. Birmingham Royal Ballet managed to take a play about poetry and turn it into a ballet that … well, frequently was poetry. Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but I can’t remember the last time Romeo and Juliet gave me the sniffles (“Cmon and die already!”), and Cyrano made me weepy at least twice. The music wasn’t really amazing or memorable (though it frequently sounded familiar), but it did the job and was enjoyable; the costumes were good and a nice break from fake renaissance and “modernesque” fluffy skirts and corsets.

But really, it was about the dance, wasn’t it? Elisha Willis came back from a sizzling modern turn in E=MC2 to take on the role of Roxanne, and managed to be both adorable, nimble, and graceful – but, most importantly, to be 100% believable as Roxanne all the way though. You could see why three guys were completely in love with her, and when she twirled and leapt her way through the regiment and then did an Irish step-dance turn on top of a drum, you absolutely bought that all the soldiers were now going to go over the top full of patriotic fervor. Passion, joy, fear, anguish – she had me sold every step of the way. And God, she was pretty, and cute as a butterbean in her “sneak into the battle to see my boyfriend” velvet pantsuit. I will have to make a special effort to see her next time BRB are in town.

I, of course, must now turn to Cyrano, as Robert Parker was hardly offstage the whole night. He managed an incredible upper-body expressiveness – vital when this is how you are “speaking” love letters – and also had great leaps and heart-wrenching solos. But even better, he got to fight duels, which were incredibly fun to watch, and do a love duet with someone who was in love with someone else – all while making me feel bad for him (and not just because his nose fell off after the balcony scene and he had to dance around it for about five minutes) – all while wearing a cape, a wig, and yummy custom boots. What a turnaround from Mayerling – I struggled so hard to care about its lead, but Parker had me bought the minute he kissed a market woman while fighting off a man with his blade.

Most of the “heavy lifting” was left to Iain Mackay in the role of Christian, who had to, again and again, do a Macmillan-esque lift in which Roxanne went over and around his shoulders to land en pointe. After the balcony scene, it looked like he almost dropped her, and in his final scene his arms were visibly trembling as he held her overhead. For all that Parker had to act and dance, there’s no doubt that Mackay was really, really working hard during this show – perhaps a little beyond his abilities. Still, he was compelling in the role of a simpleton, and I found that, like Roxanne and Cyrano, he too had charmed me before the end of the ballet. Damn these dancers and their mad acting skillz! I’m so used to just watching the dance, since when am I supposed to get caught up in the story?

Really, this was such a fun show, with lots of compelling action on stage (such as the “baguette adagio” in the bakery, and of course the duelling, and the very exciting battle scene), so much so that I never looked at my watch once – well, only to make sure I was coming back on time from intermission. My companions Amy, Alice and J also thought it was great. Doubtlessly there have been ballets in which the choreography was more exciting – I sit here still befuddled about people’s enthusiasm for Mayerling – but David Bintley has created something in which we, as the audience, care about the story and the characters. This, then, is a ballet worth watching – and as it’s on for two more days, I advise you go buy your tickets ASAP and make sure every night has a full house.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, November 11th, 2009. Cyrano continues at Sadler’s Wells through Saturday, November 13th. If you’re skint, there is a half price ticket deal available, but I recommend paying full price if you can afford it, as Sadler’s Wells is an institution that deserves to be rewarded for consistently bringing great dance talent to London.)

Review – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “Quantum Leaps” Program – Sadler’s Wells

November 11, 2009

Last night’s Birmingam Royal Ballet “Quantum Leaps” program at Sadlers Wells was a real treat, delivering two knockouts after opening with a bit of a wiffle. “Powder,” a quasi-classical 1998 production featured dancers in jammies (bras and fluffy underskirts for girls, briefs for the men) carvorting to Mozart, opened the night. I found it dry and forgettable.

Far more exciting, and the real reason I’m trying to cram this review in today (so I can encourage perhaps one more person to go), is David Bintley’s “E=MC2,” and, to be perfectly honest, its twin (in terms of newness), Garry Stewart’s “The Centre and its Opposite.” I cheated and didn’t bother reading the program notes for E=MC2 (okay, I was gossiping so much that I didn’t have time), but simply the title was enough to be evocative for me. This is what I experienced, though I can’t guarantee it’s in perfect order as I was too excited to take notes very well:

First scene: the dancers, huddled in a ball under a low-hanging ceiling, have their arms extended a bit, their fingers twisting and turning like a flamenco dancer’s. Light slices across them; their costumes have blazes across their chests that catch the light. It’s like a primeval world; the dancers are like a big … I can’t help but think of an atom or a chunky molecule. The music is utterly modern but good, not too pretentiously atonal, really fresh sounding and exciting. The dancers break apart and shoot off around the stage, swirling around, sometimes bent over at the waist with their arms swinging from side to side, reminding me of the versions of “Rite of Spring” that have a ball of people enacting a ritual in the middle of the stage. A blonde woman and a man get to do a fair amount of duets and solos, and WOW can they move, very fleet of foot, very limber. At some point I realize I have stopped writing about the show in my head because I am completely caught up in the movement.

Second scene: six men, three women, moving together, generally slowly, sometimes doing a momement together, sometimes in sequence. The men handle the women very tenderly. I am amused by the women’s costumes, which remind me of the posters for Raquel Welch’s Two Million BC. I am imagining chemical processes taking place, expressed in the medium of dance.

Third scene: a bright red square in the sky, a woman in a white kimono holding a red fan. A deafening boom (this made me angry as I think it was at hearing damage level). Clear Hiroshima reference, the negatives of the secrets of the atom, the white referring to the Asian death colors. Unfortunately I’ve seen too much good and authentic Japanese dance to like this bit. Just a little more work with an expert choreographer (especially in relation to the movement of the sleeves) could have punched this way up as dance instead of being a pseudo-Oriental pastiche.

Fourth scene: atoms dancing in space! The back of the stage is covered with lights (round incandescent ones), and I can hardly see the dancers because of the glare – they are practically shadows, flitting and hard to focus on. The dancers run back and forth, they are beautiful, they are joyous. I am reminded of little atoms dancing on the surface of the sun – they can’t be concerned about morality, they are just pure existence, flicking electrons to each other, fusing, fissioning (?), arcing away from the glowing surface and back. A second blond woman takes the stage, lithe, quick-stepping, and she is smiling, they are all smiling, and as she catches her partner’s eyes and grins, I think, “My God, they are actually having fun.” And I was, too, utterly caught up in the moment. Who knows if my interpretations reflected the program notes, I was excited enough to see something so rich that it was able to spark all of those connections in my head!

WHEW. I figured after that was over, what really was left? But BRB returned with “The Centre and its Opposite,” another brand new piece. The choreographer (Garry Stewart, must make the effort to see his Australian Dance Theater now) said in his notes that it was about dancers fighting to be the center of attention, and, wow, I could barely decide where to look and I loved it. The whole thing was done to this awesome industrial music and performed against a set with florescent lights standing up in rows on the sides and back of the stage and hovering over the stage in a lowerable wall. If ever there was movement a ballerina or danseur could do to make himself noticed, in this piece they were doing it; legs flipped up to ears, leaps, twisting, flipping, every trick in the book was out. It wasn’t sloppy, though – the movement had focus and made sense. It had the wild electricity of the first time I saw “In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” and I wondered, is this what Forsythe would have created if he’d been a newish choreographer now instead of 20 years ago?

Overall, this night ended with two such power packed ballets that I was left gasping for air, my hair kind of standing on end like it did the first time I saw “Chroma” (and the first time I saw Forsythe). I have always thought BRB was a strong dance company, and this evening fully supported my decision to really make an effort to see them each and every opportunity I get. I am truly sorry I can’t go see this performance again, but I do have tickets for Cyrano, which they’re finishing out their turn at Sadler’s Wells; with half priced tickets available, there’s no reason not to go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 10th 2009. The final performance of Quantum Leaps will be tonight, Wednesday October 11th. Birmingham Royal Ballet finishes at Sadler’s Wells with performances of “Cyrano,” ending on Saturday November 14th.)

Review – Habit of Art – National Theatre

November 11, 2009

Tonight J and I went to the National to see Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art. I’ve only ever seen one other play by Bennett (History Boys, of course), so can’t really say that I see him as an institution, but he’s got a keen ear for dialogue and can be very funny and New Play! Thus, I had to go, and for previews so I could get something approaching an affordable seat (though really £28 is above my normal, I was still quite seduced by the idea of seeing a New Play! and thus reason was overwhelmed by lust). I read nothing about it beforehand so that it could be entirely a surprise to me.

The setup is that we are backstage at some theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play about the day the composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) came to a very old WH Auden (Richard Griffiths) to talk to him about his new opera, Death in Venice, as told (sort of) from the point of view of Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), their biographer. We have a full set of actors doing the rehearsal (except for two who are missing “due to a Chekov matinee”), but also the musicians, a prompter, a stage manager, the author, and a few other folks. We listen to the actors debate the motivations (etc.) of the people they are depicting, to the author providing background detail, to the stage manager consoling people, and, of course, to the words of the play. It’s this play that is the core of Habit of Art, and while in part it’s a chance for Bennett to show two historical characters, it’s also a chance for him to explore the nature of creative collaboration.

My feeling on the “play”ness of this show was that it was a device that let him have some fun with a show that might have been a real slog if it was just Auden peeing in the sink and telling off his rent boy for not being timely enough. Instead, we got the comedy of the actors joking with each other, being teased for their mistakes, and generally being hams (especially Frances de la Tour in the role of the stage manager).

As it turned out, the “meat” I expected, the story of how art (in this case collaboration between artists) happens, never really materialized in act two. Instead, it was a chance for Britten and Auden to discourse on dealing with homosexuality, both in the act of creating art and in themselves. I found this rather unsatisfyingly inward looking and far less universal than the theme of art creation I was hoping for. It felt a bit like Bennett pursuing a subject that was of great interest to himself, much as (I felt it had to be) the lives and interactions of these two great (gay) men was. So, ultimately, I felt I was listening to a set piece in which Bennett replayed a conversation he had imagined, between two people he was interested in, but with various joking asides tossed in (courtesy of the show within a show device) to make it a more interesting on stage. It seemed like what might have happened with Fram if its author had actually cared about anyone wanting to watch it all the way to the end. Both had serious intellectual interests and deeply important things to discuss, but Bennett went for the mass appeal.

That said, I’m afraid this isn’t going to be mama’s little moneymaker like I think the National was hoping for. The run will probably sell out – it’s very much made to order for the folks who go to the National and even has a little paen to the venue at the very end – but it’s just too … I don’t know, introspective, navel gazing (and very much Alan Bennett’s navel), in spite of the heavy leavening of humor. So while I’m very happy to have been present at the birth of a play, I’m sad that this just wasn’t the “work of a lifetime” I was hoping for. Ah well, at least it was a good night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 9th, 2009. It continues through January 24th, 2010. Other reviews can be read at SansTaste’s weblog and elsewhere.)

Metro discounted ticket deal to Royal Ballet’s “Sleeping Beauty”

November 10, 2009

The Metro yesterday advertised a very good deal on tickets to The Sleeping Beauty for 7:30/7PM shows on November 16th and 19th and January 18th and 19th (2010, obviously). Prices were £68 for orchestra stalls (normally £110-£93) and £45 for amphitheater seats (normally £60-£50).

To book, either go to the Royal Opera site (the link the Metro provided unfortunately doesn’t work), pick a valid date (see above), type “metro” into the “have a code” box, and click “go.” The discounted price will show next to the full price in the “pick a seat” part of the process – be sure to click the discounted price when picking your seats. OR – call 020 7304 4000 and quote “Sleeping Beauty Metro Offer” when booking.