Archive for December, 2009

Review – Sandy Toksvig’s “Christmas Cracker” – Royal Festival Hall

December 24, 2009

I didn’t know anything about Sandy Toksvig or her semi-cohost Ronnie Corbett but the blurb on for “Sandy Toskvig’s Christmas Cracker” totally sold me, promising “festive sing-a-longs” and a retelling of “A Christmas Carol!” It all sounded very English and a lot of fun, as I really enjoy group sings and I love a Christmas Carol.

Well. As it turns out, this show was just not all it was cracked up to be. Sandy had a few jokes to tell, Ronnie managed to make jokes about dildos (“Ann Summers calling: we need you to return our fire extinguisher”), viagra, and being felt up (not really appropriate given the number of under-12s in the audience), but somehow far too much time got wasted on a not very enticing story about a mute stagehand and the Christmas fairy he falls in love with. The guest artists seemed generally horribly wasted in the utterly underpowered Christmas Carol: neither Miriam Margolis (as Mrs. Cratchitt) or Tim Pigott-Smith (as Scrooge) were able to do much other than act as background to Toskvig’s own weak jokes.

Even sadder was the unsingability of the supposed singalong moments. We were invited to join Barb Jungr as she attacked holiday classics (“White Christmas,” I think, and, er, something else, maybe “Winter Wonderland”) with a Minelli-esque enthusiasm – possibly from the coked-up years. The thing is, even though her voice was good, when you start going all over the place with your songs, people can not sing along with you. I would have really wanted to, but hers was not a “lead a singalong” performance – it was showy solos all the way through. And the three tenor men who sang earlier – good voices but still, they were showing off and harmonizing, not inviting us to participate. This was an utter flop as a singalong. (And I’ve mostly supressed the memory of the horrible, flat voice of the child who played “The Little Match Girl.” Seriously, this is London: could they not have found a brat who could at least hold a note, and even the RIGHT note? Were they all off performing in Oliver? Did perhaps Ms. Toksvig owe this girl’s mother a favor of some sort? The mind boggles.)

Actually, as I sat there clutching the contents of my cracker and my ticket stub after the show – reminding me I’d shelled out £25 for the pleasure of attending plus £2 for a paper crown, a bad joke, and a battery operated candle – I realized that the whole evening, from the not funny magician to the not funny stagehand to the – dare I say it – not funny joke in my cracker, was just pretty lame. Was it under-rehearsed? Is the Royal Festival hall just the kind of barn that kills any show? In retrospect, the best moments were when an audience member was being chosen in pub-quiz style to participate in “The Christmas Carol” (as Tiny Skirt, er, Tiny Tim), and the brief moment when Ronnie and Mr. Pigott-Smith were joking with each other on stage. But otherwise it was a really poor way to blow my night. Thank goodness this dog is over; I only wish I’d been warned soon enough to have spent the night at home watching David Attenborough on the BBC Iplayer.

(This review is for the performance that took place on December 23rd at 7:30 PM. The show is now over. Weep not. A more thorough review can be found on the West End Whingers‘ site.)

Summary from the Southbank website: A Christmas cabaret in Royal Festival Hall featuring an array of guest stars from the worlds of music, magic and comedy, including the legendary Ronnie Corbett. Hosted by queen of the quips Sandi Toksvig and a house band, the show is a joyous mix of music and comedy. It features festive sing-a-longs and, in time-honoured tradition, a re-working of a much-loved period drama in the form of a hilarious romp through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, written by Sandi Toksvig and a specially commissioned Christmas anthem by Fascinating Aida’s Dillie Keane. Created by Sandi Toksvig and Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly, and directed by Fiona Laird, who directed Stephen Fry’s Cinderella at the Old Vic in 2007 starring Sandi Toksvig, each performance will have the same format, although star guests will vary through the show’s ten-day run.

Special guest stars now announced! Keep checking the website for updates – the remaining guest stars to be announced soon.

The 20 December performance is captioned and has speech-to-text reporting.

15 Dec
Maria Friedman
Stephen Mangan
Sara Kestelman
16 Dec
Maria Friedman
Nicholas Parsons
Sara Cox
17 Dec
Sarah Connolly
Fiona Shaw
Jeremy Hardy
18 Dec
Denise Van Outen
John Humphrys
Dick & Dom
19 Dec
Barb Jungr
Roger Lloyd Pack
Sara Kestelman
20 Dec
Clive Rowe
Jon Snow
June Whitfield
London Gay
Men’s Chorus
21 Dec
Sharon D. Clark
Rob Brydon
Sara Kestelman
London Gay
Men’s Chorus
22 Dec
Frances Ruffelle 
Arthur Smith
Sue Perkins
London Gay
Men’s Chorus
23 Dec
Barb Jungr
Tim Pigott-Smith
Miriam Margolyes
24 Dec
Maria Friedman
Lionel Blair
Sue Perkins


Review – Aladdin – Hackney Empire (2009)

December 23, 2009

Panto panto panto! When Christmas rolls around, it’s my chance to experience the wonder of this traditional English fare, which turns me from a bitter theater grinch into a giggling six-year-old clutching a twinkling fairy wand in one hand and a fistful of sweets in the other. Okay, maybe I was actually clutching a G&T and the sweets were safely in my bag, but still, last night’s trip to the Hackney Empire made magic happen, just like it has every year I’ve made the trek to this most eastern of theatrical haunts.

My perspective was screwed on just a little more tightly by having gone to an Aladdin barely more than a week before, which led to the shocking discovery that, in spite of nearly every panto I’ve attended feeling like its script was found on the back of a box of cereal, in fact, many of the elements appear to be quite codified. I mean, really, who would ever think of Aladdin having a brother who was named Wishy Washy? I’ve read the fairy tale many times, and I’m positive there was no “Wishy Washy” in the Arabian Nights. I also don’t remember any scene in the Widow Twankey’s laundromat, in which a human being gets thrown into a washer/dryer and “shrinks” then gets run through a wringer and comes out as a paper doll, and yet both pantos had exactly these same elements. I suppose if I’d been going since I was six I’d know that there was always a Wishy Washy, a Twankey, silly policemen, and a very odd laundromat, but it almost seemed like an incredible coincidence given my lack of better cultural context.

So! New Wimbledon Theater and Hackney Empire Aladdin showdown! Brian Blessed and Pamela Anderson versus That Black Dame That’s In Every Hackney Panto and Some Random Woman As Aladdin! And the winner is …


There are just SO many ways the Hackney Aladdin was SO good that it’s almost unfair to compare it to the Wimbledon show, like comparing mom’s home-made chocolate chip cookies to some stale biscuits from Asda. Rather than saying “this was better, that was better,” I will just talk about every little bit of magic that made Hackney’s Aladdin a night of theatrical magic for me, starting from the moment we entered Old Peking’s Ha-Ka-Nay with a lion dancer making its way through the crowd and stage hands waving butterfly and dragon kites around the edges of the balconies. The kids were screaming and laughing and the 70 year old man next to me was already smiling, and I was right there saying “LOOK BEHIND YOU!” at every opportunity, trying to learn the greeting for Wishy Washy (“Wishy Washy You’re So Chung”), and wondering how Twankey’s costumes would hold out.

But wait! Our Aladdin appeared, and it was none other than Anna-Jane Casey from the Menier’s Forbidden Broadway! We had a proper principal boy, in a skirt and with great legs and a fantastic singing voice! WOW! Suddenly her duets with the Chinese Princess became songs that were not just funny and clever but pleasant to listen to, and she got some good dancing in, too!

Of course, what I was waiting for was the fabulous dame Clive Rowe to take the stage as Widow Twankey, and as usual he was a ball of hysteria, not just tottering out in a different, comically camp costume every scene (bonus points for the willow pattern teapot!), but hamming it up so heavily – and, I suspecting, engaging in more than just a little ad-libbing – that at least two of his fellow actors lost it while they were doing a scene. A particularly memorable moment was when he was trading insults with the Empress of China (“You bottle of pepto-bismol!” “You chocolate orange!”) that at some point appeared to degenerate into actual, extremely funny, name calling. And then there was the moment he rolled off the couch where he’d been flirting with the ever so sexy Evil Magician Abenazzer (I don’t know his name but GOD he’s good looking), lost his wig, then (after some frantic moments) reappeared on the couch with his wig on backwards. I can’t say he carried on without losing a beat but the whole thing just added to the general high spirits. I can’t tell you what a treasure Rowe is: I will spend the rest of my life wanting to see dames of this quality in panto and I suspect in this day in age I will rarely see one of his quality again.Hackney Empire "Aladdin:" Off to Arabia - with the genie and ... on Twitpic

Well! I could go on and on about what a damned good evening this was, but I would just be rambling. Susie McKenna is a genius and there’s something wonderful about coming back to see so many of the same talented people coming back to this space to put on a show that somehow, even this far into the run and as the second show of that evening, was fresh and lively and delightful. As they say, if you’re only going to see one panto this Christmas … make sure you go to Hackney, because that’s where all of the magic is hiding again, the magic that turns me, Grouchy Theater McScrooge, into a giggling lump with tears running down her cheeks. Really, don’t miss it.

PS: There are tap dancing pandas. Need I say more?

(This review is for the 7 PM performance that took place on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2-009. The final performance is January 9th, 2010. See the Hackney Empire‘s website for more details, and please consider making a donation to help them stay open as after this year’s panto they will be dark for rather a while.)

Best London theater, 2009

December 19, 2009

While I’ve still got three more shows before the season’s entirely over, I feel confident that I can now get the “what was the best” posts out of the way (complete list of shows here, grand total estimated to be 116). Best dance, best musical/drama are my categories, as well as a few special celebrations and a shaming here and there. Read on …

Discovery of the year: the Southwark Playhouse. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at this small and atmospheric venue blew me away; the shows I’ve seen since have been of mixed quality (the recent and continuing Christmas Carol was a treat to be sure) but never made me feel financially cheated. Generally worth going to “just for the heck of it.” Now, mind you, Royal Court has been crowned “The New Donmar” (affordable prices, adventurous programming) and I’m planning on buying something akin to the entire spring season there, but it was hardly a discovery; it just became noticeable for its greatness this year.

Overdone gimmick of the year: “event” theater with movie or TV celebrities. Please, let’s have less of the classics being butchered by people who can’t act at extravagant prices. I realize this is probably singlehandedly responsible for the fantastic income London theater is experiencing this year, but good theater is not just about filling seats. I feel like seeing Jude Law/David Tennant/Keira Knightly on stage gets people to go just so they can say “ooh ah I was in the same room as INSERT NAME HERE” and does little to encourage the creation of good shows. The Donmar deserves an especial drubbing for going so mad for celebrity casting in their West End season – and what a horrible mistake to waste Judi Dench in that Mishima dog they put on.

Dance performance of the year: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “E=MC2” (full discussion here) I saw the Royal Ballet many times this year and they just weren’t doing anything this exciting – not really helping the cause of getting ballet into the 21st century and recruiting new audiences so much as sticking with tried and tried and tried and true (“Mayerling” twice in two years, please!). I also give BRB points for “best new story ballet of the year” even though I don’t think Cyrano was new and I don’t think I saw any other new story ballet this year (even though I do try to go see them when I can – well, okay, there was the Wuthering Heights ballet but it seemed more like a thought than a story).

Painful lesson of the year: modern opera, I really shouldn’t bother. Die Tote Stadt, Into the Little Hill, Grand Macabre; I really want to support new opera but unfortunately I think it’s almost entirely unmusical, like it’s designed by academics to adhere to certain structures and generally not to be musical in any way.

Musical of the year: the nominees were: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical*; Company; Forbidden Broadway; (the all male) Pirates of Penzance; Silence the Musical. After tossing and turning, debating the hysterical brilliance of Silence (full of hummable, if utterly rude, tunes) and the extravagant, seedy intensity of Pirates, I’ve decided the award goes to … Pirates, which made an arthritic script come to life in a way I truly did not think possible. Rumor has it it’s going to be reprised at Wilton’s Music Hall this spring, though unfortunately I can’t find any information about it on their calendar. That said, Silence: the Musical is going to be done again at the Above the Stag theater – don’t miss out as there’s really little reason for it to be staged again so soon and it really is a hoot.

Best theater blog: I’m not going to list the ones I read (mostly because it’s a short list), but once again the West End Whingers have proven to have the blog that gets me the right hot tips on what shows to see. Sometimes it was a show I’d unimaginatively rejected; sometimes it’s a show I never heard of; almost always it was a show that was on the verge of becoming unattainable. It’s even better now that they have a Twitter feed: getting a line from them to “buy your tickets for Jerusalem now” will send me immediately to my computer. Every now and then we utterly disagree on a show; but mostly they are like having my own private theatrical pimp. I like that.

Show of the year: the nominees were: Entertaining Mr Sloane; Kursk; The Mountaintop; Enron; Cock. (Note absolutely nothing from the Donmar this year, for shame). In a year in which great shows were thin on the ground in comparison to the volume of productions being cranked out, this wasn’t nearly as competitive as I was hoping it would be. Still, I’ve weighed the best of the year (that I saw), and it’s clear: not only as best production but also as best script, Mike Bartlett’s Cock blew me away. Each performance was perfect; the close confines made it all that more intense; the words were exactly what they should be. It’s a damned shame it sold out so fast, but such good theater should never experience a single unoccupied seat for even one night. I can’t imagine it being remounted elsewhere without watering down the impact of seeing this in the round in a tiny (80 person?) house, but this was really just a tiny drop of perfection in a year that was otherwise a bit of a desert.

Right, that’s it for me: 116 shows in one year was probably about thirty more than I should have seen. I don’t even think I’m capable of remembering who the best actor and actress even were anymore. Next year, I’m hanging up my hat and taking it easy; I want 2010 to be a year when I see less shows and more that I like. This will require waiting until the reviews come in so I can more easily identify the productions that will suit me, and might mean that I miss a few that sharper people snapped up sooner – but I think it’s probably the way to go. Even sticking to a budget like I try to do, this year was taxing on my wallet as well as my sleep schedule. See you in the second balcony …

*Actually, Priscilla was never a contender for me. I just put it in there because it seemed like it should have been, especially given how expensive it was.

Review – The Nutcracker – Royal Ballet (2009)

December 18, 2009

When Christmas time comes around, I’ve got three things on my mind: A Christmas Carol, panto, and Nutcracker. These, to me, are the three elements that build holiday cheer and a real feeling of “It’s Christmas!” in me. And, insofar as I am able, every year I try to see a new version of each of these shows, meaning I’ve seen both a black light and a South African “Christmas Carol,” and Nutcrackers ranging from Mark Morris’s “Hard Nut” (which required a trip to San Francisco) and Matthew Bourne‘s (which has my favorite first act of all). Last year we saw Mr. B’s version at City Ballet, and I was surprised at how inflexible I was as to certain story elements. This review, then, isn’t so much about the dance, it’s about the performance elements of the ballet, and how it compares to my mental ideal of The Nutcracker, formed on a version I saw in Munich in 1981, Arizona Ballet’s version, and (to some extent) Pacific Northwest Ballet’s bizarre incarnation. (For the record, the female star should be called Clara. I realize Mr. B did not adhere to this, but you can’t just go around calling Sleeping Beauty “Heather” – it doesn’t work.)

The ballet opens in a workshop, where Drosselmeier (Gary Avis) is making two dolls. The first, an angel, he sends off with his assistant to be delivered to Clara’s parents’ house. The second is, of course, the Nutcracker, whom we see suddenly peering out at us through a scrim (that had been a picture of a soldier). This was all a very new setup for the opening scenes, and I liked it a lot – it got us through a lot of the music with the addition of some very meaningful narrative. We also were introduced to the utterly bizarre Assistant (Ludovic Ondiviela) – who probably could have been used much better than he was as he only got one little star turn in the whole night.

Then it’s time for the party. This scene was far less chaotic and dull than many versions I’ve seen, doubtlessly in part because of choreographer Peter Wright’s completely correct choice to have Clara (Iohna Loots) performed, all the way through, by an adult woman, meaning there is room for much more good dancing in this act rather than the excess of flim flam you get when you’re trying to make too much out of child dancers. We still had the doll-carrying girls versus the soldier-carrying boys; but we also had a nice dance of the adults with a little tableau of the servants at the far back of the stage in front of the Christmas tree as well as doll dances done with a Harlequin/Columbine and a Soldier and, er, uh, “Vivandiere” (seemed like “mean chick who hangs out with the soldiers and would just as likely beat you to death herself”). I thought the two pairs of dances were charming rather than particularly virtuosic, but didn’t mind. Drosselmeier himself was a real wizard type, juggling, making flowers appear out of nowhere, and leaving a trail of glitter wherever he walked. I liked this portrayal quite a bit.

As for the set, there was the seemingly requisite owl, but also a soldier bunny (who came back to haunt us); and a strange giant dollhouse that only appears after the “transformation” scene. The angel makes several appearances after being given to Clara’s family: first in a sort of hallucination, when only Clara sees her full sized in front of the tree; then leading the change into the “giant Christmas tree;” again pulling the sleigh Clara and the Nutcracker use to go to Sugarplum Land; then, at the beginning of act 2, as a group of six dancing in the smoke to greet them upon their arrival. It was a very unique take and one I enjoyed.

Unfortunately the various dances in the suite weren’t all I wanted them to be. The Russian and Chinese dances were great: in these, the trope of having Clara and her soldier dance with the character dancers was perfect, showing off Ricardo Cervera’s kicking skills and Iohna’s grace and charm. The Arabian sequence didn’t have the sensuality I wanted, though, and the Dance of the Sugar Plum fairy was just … flat, not at all the dance extravaganza I was hoping for. Ah well, the Waltz of the Flowers was good, at least, if just a wee bit on the sugary side.

Overall I thought this was a very good Nutcracker, probably the second best of all the ones I’ve seen, and well worth seeing again. Still, I’m hoping next year I can travel for a Nut, and see either Birmingham Royal Ballet or Ballet Scotland, and see something really new and different.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 16th, 2009. All performances are sold out but you might be able to get day seats.)

Aladdin’s Magic: Limp (Review of Pamela Anderson/ Brian Blessed “Aladdin”) – New Wimbledon Theatre

December 16, 2009

Pam Anderson in a panto? Pam Anderson? As an American, I figured her visit to the annual extravaganza at the New Wimbledon Theater – which I’d previously skipped due to its sky-high prices – presented nearly unlimited opportunities for naff, whether due to her slim acting skills, her utter inexperience on the stage, or her complete lack of familiarity with the panto form (and as an American I can guarantee she had no idea what was going to be going on). And then there was the Brian Blessed factor. I only knew him as King of the Hawkmen from the 80s camp classic Flash Gordon; but per my intended fellow Pantonian Wechsler, Blessed is also well known … for a near pathological obsession with large bosoms. “Basically,” he sold it to me,”the two of them should work like baking soda and lye. I expect the fire brigade will be on alert.”

Two months later, the entire premise had degenerated into farce. Pam was now only scheduled for a third of the run; wait, no, she wasn’t going to even do that much & Ruby Wax was filling in for her on what was supposed to be opening night. And then my party of six went down to five, no 6, no (day of show flu) five, then finally six, then yet another person cancelled and even my original recommender said a work emergency might keep him away. It all seemed so doomed, really; was this a panto Black Mariah?

As it turns out, this is a perfectly servicable panto, with all of the requirements; silly costumes, silly dances, and silly songs. The audience participation is rather limited, though; while we got lots of booing in, there was a real shortage of “it’s behind you”s, the “oh no you’re not”s were forced, and the call-out to Aladdin’s brother Wishee Washee was unnecessarily complex.

Fortunately the overwhelming presence of Brian Blessed ably compensated for these deficits. As evil sorcerer Iwanna Banana (or suchlike), he eagerly engaged the audience, keeping us on point and the story moving along. Of _course_ he had the villainous laugh down pat, and he threw in references to his previous star turns and even his personal achievements to up the humor, but what he really had was stage presence in buckets. Twanky got the good costumes, but Blessed unequivocably owned this show.

Now that’s not to say that Pam wasn’t entertaining as the genie of the lamp – she got her lines right, participated gamely in an extremely comic dance routine, and mocked her own fame – but it was the slave of the ring (Djalenga Scott) who was cranking out the sex appeal. And Twankey (Jonathan D Ellis) was a pretty sharp dame, but …

I think this may have been where the blah dialogue, by-the-book costumes, and completely unimaginative songs cut this show off at the knees when it could have really shone. It should have gone for gaudier and even more over the top, and then this could have been the panto I was hoping for, but ultimately it felt canned and unengaging. Blessed is utterly brilliant, a panto force to be reckoned with, but even the power of Pam couldn’t keep this Aladdin from being limp.

*Now get Blessed and Ian McKellen in a show written by that genius at the Hackney Empire and _then_ we’d have a show to talk about for years!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 15th, 2009. Performances continue, with a variety of genies, through January 10th. For other reviews, see the Evening Standard and the West End Whingers.)

Review – A Christmas Carol – Southwark Playhouse

December 13, 2009

Saturday afternoon, J and I headed to Southwark to see a fairly early performance – actually, a matinee, but I mean “early in the run” – of Southwark Playhouse‘s promenade version of “A Christmas Carol.” The ads warned of extreme cold as we walked through the tunnels under London bridge – but I had a far greater fear, of extreme naff as we were, say, paraded past a series of stale vignettes taken from the book, all marred by an excess of enthusiasm and lack of talent from the locally-recruited cast.

I am pleased to say on all accounts my fears were unwarranted. This was a very good show, both as an example of the promenade form and an incarnation of the classic tale, and was blessed by original staging and an utterly brilliant Scrooge. Before I finish my ramblings, let me encourage you to buy tickets now if you are a Christmas Carol fan, as it’s already selling out, the audience size (80) is about half the normal for this venue, and it’s well worth seeing. Word is going to get out fast and I’d hate to think that in the time it took you to read this you missed out on your chance to get tickets.

The event itself starts in the bar, where a nice Victorian three-piece band is making enough merry that I was sorry I hadn’t got there earlier. (We return to the bar during the interval; order your mulled wine in advance.) Various costumed people wander through the crowd wishing us all a happy Christmas; it actually made for a very nice transition into the show, and was a really enjoyable and atmospheric way to pass the time before it started.

We were then herded into the usual auditorium, which was set up with a series of writing desks, to which several audience members were sent to scratch out figures for Ebenezer Scrooge (David Fielder). He blew in and settled in the middle, while a few appropriately clad actors (and one Bob Cratchit, played by Steve Hansell) filled out the rest of the chairs. We audience recruits were actually quite involved with the scene, not just scraping our quills across the ledgers but also whispering (“Put some more coal in the fire!”) to each other, driving the story along. Meanwhile the real actors added vocal atmosphere, going “Tick! Tick! Tick!” as if they were the clock counting down the time to Christmas eve, and filling in other background noises in a unique way that helped us get into the “theater”/”something unusual is going to happen here” mindset.

(The sound design was notably good; I was entranced by the bird song that accompanied the arrival of The Ghost of Christmas Past and found the echoing voices of the various characters added a nice otherworldliness to the goings-on. The singing was also tuneful and appropriate.)

Scrooge’s office was transformed into his home, and then, well, we get Marley (Thomas Padden, heavily chained), and of course the Ghost of Christmas Past (a charming and joyous woman dressed in white, garlanded, and carrying a lightbulb – not quite a torch but, hey, fire regulations), who causes the room to open up and let us move, with the story, into the mysterious depths behind the theater. This was where (to start) Scrooge’s childhood was hidden – simply expressed by a boy in front of a blackboard. The set was sparse yet quite appropriate.

The rest of the show was, well, the story itself, with an admirable adherence to the text – yes, sure, there were some small changes, but Dickens doesn’t need a lot of ornamentation to work. And as the audience we get to dance with the Fezziwigs, eat with the Cratchitts, and … in a spooky scene … walk amongst the gravestones with Ebenezer and the creepy Ghost of Christmas Future. We weren’t watching scenes take place so much as experiencing them, and I found that it really worked. Much of the credit must be given to David Fielder, for I can hardly think of an actor that has more perfectly captured Scrooge’s journey. And we are there right beside him for much of it – he’s incapable of hiding from the audience at any point, as he is on stage for all of it except the interval. What a tour de force! I really bought his experience, from the arrogance of the beginning to the soft joy he felt seeing his happy past to his acceptance and desire to change at the end. While I’ve seen many actors play this role, Fielder seemed formed of the very ink of Dicken’s pen, and I expect all future versions I see will be held up against his standard. Also notable was Trevor Michael Georges as the Ghost of Christmas Present, which had every bit of the booming jollility I expect of this character – and handed out candy to the audience.

Athough there were a few hiccups with what I expect were less experienced actors (credited as the “community cast”), still, this is a show well worth seeing – and to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as cold in the vaults as I would have expected it to be. Still, wear comfortable shoes, and don’t bother checking your coat … and do get out and see this show.

(This show is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, December 12th, 2009. The show runs through January 9th. It’s already sold out through the 28th, so I advise booking ASAP.)

Review – Keira Knightley’s “Misanthrope” – Comedy Theatre

December 12, 2009

Keira Knightley on the West End is one of the most hyped “event theater” moments of 2009, and it was with bated breath I went to see a preview (read: semi-affordable) of “The Misanthrope.” Now, Moliere is just brilliant; his witty couplets leave Fram bleeding by the wayside. I had high hopes for this new translation leading to a good night out. High hopes were very appropriate given my 2nd tier seats – according to the barman, the space had previously been used as storage, and God knows that in my many visits to the Comedy I’d never seen the stage from high up. Still, seated only one row ahead of the very last in the house, I had a generally unobstructed view of the stage, so there was only the quality of the acting to worry about and not “can I enjoy this with only 1/3 of the theater visible” as I’ve experienced on other occasions.

Actually, though, there was a wee matter of the script. Fortunately, it has been updated pretty well, with references to post-Modernism, deconstruction, Derrida, feminism, the media, and the transience of fame. The structure and feel of Moliere has been – well, not entirely preserved, but rather “paid homage” to, with lots of little couplet-y rhymes thrown in and a nice iambic meter causing the script to flow trippingly off the actors’ tongues (occasionally perhaps a bit too much so), and a few references to the Baroque thrown in to remind us all of its origins (though I doubt anyone in the audience besides me had a clue who Marais was, despite his music playing at nearly every scene change). I’d say it smelled like Moliere, which was more than enough – the story itself is very good and the script did not need to be slavish in order to feel right.

This Misanthrope is set in the media-frenzied now, with Alceste (Damian Lewis) an unappreciated playwright with a dedication to utter honesty in one’s relations with others. This causes his best friend (Dominic Rowan) a great deal of amusement as Alceste’s standards are completely undermined by his brainless affection for Jennifer (Keira Knightly), an American actress who lives for attention (and appears to have got most of it by her half-naked film appearances). Comedy turns are provided by the critic who seeks Alceste’s approval of his script and the feminist professor (Tara FitzGerald) who claims concern for Jennifer while seeking Alceste’s attention, but mostly the play is about a grumpy old humbug who wants to love someone for what he wants her to be and not for what she really is. It’s timeless, really, and I found Alceste’s self-righteousness just as recognizable today as it was 300 years ago.

Sadly the weakest cog in the machine was Knightley herself, who managed to get her accent right but failed to do the acting. Her “I love you, Alceste” was as limp as a dead goldfish floating in a tank, and when she wasn’t being coy or making fun of people, she just failed to hit the mark. I wasn’t sure to what extent the script was to blame for this – she’s not supposed to be very intelligent or deep – but I think the character really deserved more texture than she got. Jennifer is a bit of Legally Blonde‘s “Elle,” but with a lot more snark, and Knightley wasn’t managing to make the character believable, getting the dumb but not much else. Had she perhaps not had that much time to rehearse and get into the character – or was it her lack of stage experience showing? The weakness she showed in her confrontation scene with her former teacher (who really owned the stage during their catfight) was so notable that I’m convinced it was her own inexperience showing. Perhaps her performance will gel more over the course of the run.

Fortunately the rest of the performances and the show itself was more than enough to make up for a less that star powered turn by the lead female. The supporting cast was charming and sharp; the set was gorgeous; the costumes nicely done (especially in the over-the-top fancy dress ball at the end); and, well, the story was VERY funny. I would, in fact, consider this a perfect Friday night’s entertainment – chances are I’ll come back to watch from the floor – if I can get seats I can afford (I’d spend about 30). It’s practically a must that I sit somewhere else given that the squeaking of the seats in the back row caused me not to hear much of the dialogue of the first two scenes. While I got my twenty quid’s worth for my tickets, consider yourself warned.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, December 11th, 2009, and it was about 2 1/4 hours straight through. Security is ridiculous and overbearing and offensive to normal theater goers, so consider yourself warned. The show continues through March 13th. My guess is that it will probably really be worth watching some time in January, so no rush. For an alternate view, I offer the wit and wisdom of the West End Whingers.)

Review – Showstopper, The Musical – The Drill Hall

December 8, 2009

“What?” I said. “A musical that is fully improved? The lyrics, the music, everything? How does that work?” Still, that carrot was more than enough to entice me and two musicals-loving friends to London’s Drill Hall to see “Showstopper! The Improvised Musical.”

The gimmick (the night we saw it anyway) worked like this: as the lights come up, a bearded impresario is on stage, taking a call from a producer. To the far right of the stage, a pianist and clarinetist (well, multi instrumentalist) sit in front of a pair of overburdened hat racks. The impresario is taking a call about a musical he’s trying to sell – well, actually, he’s taking a rejection call … but he’s got a great new musical “in the Christmas spirit!” It’s called … (he looks at us expectantly) … “The Gift of Life” (a name we voted on) … with a soaring tune in the style of … Rogers and Hammerstein! and interludes inspired by … Gilbert and Sullivan! Set in – a postapocalyptic – Dubai – rodeo! With a touch of … Sherman and Sherman!

And then the lights came up on the stage and a bunch of actors came out, already dressed in headscarves, and started singing! You could see them kind of passing the ball to each other with the lyrics – but how had they had the time to make the costumes? It had barely started and I was already impressed.

As the night wore on, it became clear that the impresario was to serve not just as inspiration, but also as referee … and sometimes torturer. He’d stop actors when they were rambling, announce to the audience that he was going to re-write that scene “so that it shows more of the relationship between Al and Sue,” then have the actors do it again. He had a camel (for some reason played by four actors) realign itself TWICE so that its hump was more visible. He constantly provided stage directions on how they should exit the stage … “in the style of a carousel” (the actors swirl and rise up and down as they clear the stage) … “no, that’s too distracting, they exit quickly.” Every now and then he’d stop a scene and announce that someone was going to now do a solo “explaining her love for the sheik in a way that draws new insight into his character” (the suddenly front and center performer grimaces) “in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan.” And then somehow we got a song about a tap dancing sheik. It was madness.

While I was constantly on edge waiting for the actors to drop the ball (or laugh so hard they just couldn’t do a scene), in fact I found the evening just loads of fun. Highlights included a Pinter-esque negotiation scene; a horse race that ended with the horse’s head collapsed in giggles on the stage; a solo done while the lead woman’s tongue was stuck to the wall of an ice palace (she “ripped” it away in the middle so she could finish singing properly); the “palm trees” and “sacrificial fire” made of red umbrellas and feather boas; and … oh, the grand finale, when the audience was singing along to the song the cast had just made up about forty minutes before as if we’d all heard it before. How did they do it?

Pippa Evans really deserves props for both managing to understand all of the styles called for (she did a great Pinter) and also remembering to move the plot forward with her dialogue and lyrics; and Ruth Bratt gets the prize for best upstaging character actress for her hysterical impression of both Maisie and My Jihad, the horses behind the throne. It was just really fun and I’d just about go to the Leicester Square Theater to see their December 17th show and see what they come up with next. Meanwhile, lucky Brightonians can see them at the Komedia every night from 27 Dec to 30 Dec 2009. If you’re a musical theater fan … or you like improv … this is a great night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, December 8th, 2009. The musical we created, “The Gift of Life,” with its soaring, Rogers and Hammerstein like epic song, “Ride on,” will likely never be sung again … “Ride on … through the desert/Ride on … Through the fear/ Ride on … through the valley/You know that this will be our year.” So sad.)

Review – Carlos Acosta – Apollo and Other Works (Faun, New Apollo, Suite of Dances, Apollo) – Sadler’s Wells

December 3, 2009

Last night’s Carlos Acosta show was the weakest solo outing this Royal Ballet star has had to date. I can understand that over the course of the three years since I have been watching him that his body might be changing and he might no longer be capable of the spectacular leaps and spins of the Spartacus solos; but this show even avoided the imaginative programming that was the saving grace of his similarly sold-out summer Coliseum performance, leaving us with cold leftovers for dinner.

What we did get was an “Apollo” he performed as part of another Acosta highlights evening some three years ago that showed off his strengths (his incredible partnering skills make him the ideal Balanchine male lead) as well as his torso (in a skimpy toga). We also got a perfectly danced Robbin’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” in which he stretched gorgeously and, as near as I can tell, identically to the way he did this piece with Royal Ballet two years ago. Do these ballets show him as a sexy guy? Yes. Did they push him as a dancer? I think not.

The third work*, Robbin’s “Suite of Dances,” just seemed, again, a lazy choice. It was performed to a butchered Bach’s cello suite in which the playing got so insufferably bad at the end my friend thought the cellist had snapped a string: please fire Natalie Chen now. The first of the suites was joyful and an incredible chance to see musical perfection expressed by the human body; but as the piece wore on, with time filled by skipping and booty-shaking, I began to wonder just what this was doing in the middle of what I was expecting to be a male dance spectacular. Surrounded by two fiery works, it would have been fine; but given that most of what he did was pose, lift, and stretch in both of the other pieces, “Dances” was an utter letdown and basically represented what was wrong with the evening.

Look at this great dancer with his spectacular form, unusual background, and remarkable ability to pack a house. I would expect choreographers would be fighting to create original work for him, but I saw nothing of the sort** in this extremely short program (finished at about 9:15PM), and he didn’t even give us the pleasure of pulling from his Ballet Nacional de Cuba experiences to round out the show and broaden our horizons. Carlos, if you can’t do Spartacus or the “Dance of the Golden Idol” anymore – and based on your summer show I think that’s not yet true – can you at least spare some effort show us something new***?

*Performed in the middle of the show, mind you, but certainly third in terms of quality.

**Yes, there was one original work but Adam Hougland’s “Young Apollo” wasn’t even danced by Acosta. I don’t mind him not dancing in everything but I’d think he’d take on the new piece for himself.

***Rather than just showing off your body. Yeah, you’re built, I get it, but seriously, it’s getting to be a bit of a joke that I go to see a Carlos Acosta show and it’s like Chippendales with classical music.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009. The show is sold out but it’s not really worth getting bothered about if you can’t get a ticket – if you’ve been before, you’ve already seen it all.)

Review – Cock – Royal Court

December 1, 2009

How good was Cock? How very good was Cock. Cock was the play that keeps me going to shows night after night, waiting for that magic to happen. Cock was the play that, when my lover says, “You see theater too much,” makes me think, “No, I barely go enough, because if I hadn’t been dedicated and willing to stand in line in the mere hope of getting a ticket, I would have missed seeing this comet shoot across the horizon, illuminating us all as it passed.” Cock made it all worthwhile.

In the round, we have presented to us a conundrum; a man all but married to his (male) lover, who has left and found himself a very new thing; a woman, intelligent and gentle and so very different from this blundering, powerful man he’s left behind. But then, he’s not left him behind; he’s left neither behind; he’s left himself behind and can’t find his way back. Is he straight, is he gay, is he just a manipulative cock who wants to feel important, somehow, by hurting other peiople and seeing just how much they’ll humiliate themselves for him? Or is he really torn between two identities, or maybe two lovers, not sure which – identity or lover – is right for him? Which is family? Which is his future?

While I could have hated the in-the-round staging of this show, in fact, the incredible intimacy overwhelmed the occasional frustrations of not being able to see an actors face. Almost always, I felt I could tell what they were doing, because the brilliant characterizations filled in the gaps. The twitching cheek; the arrogant poses: I felt no gaps in the action anymore than I would have felt I was “missing the expressions” while watching a domestic dispute in my living room.

Andrew Scott was especially brilliant as the tortured boyfriend; never once did I find myself doubting his arrogance or the pain he was going through. Now that it’s done, though, I find that I’m getting lost in the conundrum of which gave the perfection, the cast or the play, and I have to just sit back and smile, or dance with joy, for Thanks Be that amidst all the dreck and staleness that too frequently hits My Lady – the theater – the other woman in my life – there can still be nights like these, when I spent two hours watching and then another hour questioning, What did this mean? Why did he treat her/him so cruelly? all the time willfully forgetting that it was all sound and fury – and instead buying that what I saw was real and worth caring about and feeing hurt over (and with) the characters as I watched them suffer. Truly, this was a night that repaid every evening I spend in the dark waiting for magic to happen in front of me.

(This review was for a performance that took place on December 2st, 2009. I did drink rather a lot of wine afterwards but I can say, if you didn’t get tickets to this show, I fully authorize you to cry about what a great experience you missed. Thanks to Mzendle for braving the returns line to get us seats; you are ace!)