Archive for January, 2010

Review – Silence: The Musical – Above the Stag Theatre

January 31, 2010

I have to say, when I first heard a song from “Silence: The Musical” during “Blink – and You Missed It” at the Above the Stag Theatre in August, I had no idea that this was going to mark the start of a theme for six months of theater-going. Although I might have hesitated to see a musical version of Silence of the Lambs, as I am in fact terribly squeamish and quite adverse to the sight of blood, the very funny song in “Blink!” convinced me that I could easily go without getting squicked, and thus I said yes to the production at the Baron’s Court Theater in October. It turned out to be one of my two favorite musicals of 2009 (the other being the all-male Pirates of Penzance), with shockingly hummable, if generally unsingable (in polite company) songs, sharp characterizations, and a genuinely interesting story. And it was hysterically funny. So of course when I heard it was being performed again, even though a mere three months later, at the Above the Stag theater, I jumped on tickets (a good thing as it’s now already almost sold out for the run).

I have to say, though, I was quite surprised to have the show announced as the “European premiere” right before it started … had my trip to Baron’s Court been a dream? The front of house man (perhaps Peter Bull, artistic director?) insisted that it was the “full” version (some songs had been cut from the other?), and the website itself says this is the “European professional premiere,” which, well, I don’t know what to say, but I don’t really feel like it’s reasonable to call this the European premiere of the show given that it was really no more “fully” produced than the other one was, though this was decidedly actually the version that (more closely) matched the original ’95 NY Fringe Festival, as Christopher Gattelli is given credit as the director. This means that watching them both, I got to see this version as being what the director’s vision of the show was, as opposed to the Tom Murphy/Imperial Productions’ version, and I do seem to remember hearing at least one song I hadn’t in the first show.

Right. Review. Synopsis? Speech impaired wanna-be FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Tory Ross), is asked by irritating FBI man Crawford (Tim McArthur) to interview terrifying imprisoned serial killer Hannibal Lecter (Miles Western) in order to help draw out clues that might help catch current serial killer, Buffalo Bill (Fabian Hartwell). As she grows closer to Hannibal and closer to finding Bill, the question becomes: will she arrive in time to save latest prisoner, Catherine (Catherine Millsom), or will Lecter … or Bill … get Clarice first?

Now, this all sounds like it would be quite grim, but with cheery little songs like “I Wanna Size 14” (Buffalo Bill’s ideal girl) and “If I Could Smell Her Cunt” (Lecter’s paean to feeling human again), almost-tap dancing lambs (they clacked their little hooves together, which was good enough) and hit you with a two-by-four foreshadowing (the missing pen, the deaths’ head moths), it’s clear through and through that this is meant to be funny, and the occasional gory or grim bits are just Guignol ha ha’s (except for the pictures on the walls of Crawford’s office, I could really have lived without those).

The cast itself was good – the nice singing voices I now practically take for granted in London theater (crazy to think this was a “fringe” production given the professionalism of the cast – hard to understand why any of them were on “the small stage,”), good line delivery, etc. Tory Ross had a nice dry touch to her Agent Star that I really enjoyed, and Shakella Dedi as Starr’s best buddy Ardelia Mapp had a great scene-stealing moment when she ripped off her workout clothes to reveal a blue sparkly mini-dress that she worked within an inch of her life. Pins and pipes – can’t wait to see Dedi take a bigger role in the future, as she’s loaded with talent.

And yet, and yet. While I enjoyed the use of an all-lamb Greek Chorus, especially all Mikado-ized for Starr’s “telling it MY way” bit, I couldn’t help but compare this to the other production and find it lacking. Western may have performed Lecter as requested, as a one-dimensional nutjob, but I far preferred Tom Murphy’s better-rounded creep, who actually seemed like someone who COULD gain Clarice’s trust … before making her eat her tongue. And I missed the heavier development of both the lesbian subtext and sexual harassment of the Baron’s Court version, not to mention the tap-dancing corpse and the overplaying of the “high colonic appointment card.” So while Above the Stag produced a show I’d say would be a fun night out, it just didn’t hit the highs of the Baron’s Court version, which I considered unmissable. But, you know, I also had the hots for BC’s Buffalo Bill, Jame Gumb, and while Fabian Hartwell did do a nice job of tucking his junk and even wrote “Fuck me” on his abdomen, it was no comparison to the sight of all that twinkling body jewelry Jame put on display when he whipped off his kimono.

But I digress. This is certainly a fun and silly night out and well-priced at £15 quid a ticket, but with the other version so fresh in my mind I can’t as enthusiastically recommend it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, January 29th, 2010. Silence runs through February 28th and is already almost completely sold out: buy your tickets today if you’re the least bit interested.)

*Credits to the director for actually using a Safeway shopping bag, a nice touch of American authenticity that I and my two American friends appreciated. However, someone needs to be reminded that, when an American spells the letter H, it is pronounced “Aitch.” “H”aitch is strictly for Englishers – a small niggle in a nearly perfectly American accented production.

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Review – The Little Dog Laughed – Garrick

January 21, 2010

On Monday night I went to see The Little Dog Laughed at the Garrick. Little Dog is about actor Mitchell Green (Rupert Friend, well muscled but otherwise flat), who starts the evening defining himself as not gay while calling rent boys to his hotel room. His agent Diane (razor sharp Tamsin Greig) wants to keep him marketable and the truth in the closet. In this case, the truth is said Manhattan rent boy, Alex (Harry Lloyd) who’s also in denial about liking men. Only (hurray!), after a heartwarming scene about formative early sexual experiences (the “merit badge that dare not speak its name”), the guys do admit they’ve got the hots for each other, and it’s trousers down and time to get the gay on. Next problem? Alex’s girlfriend, Ellen (Gemma Arterton), and to say much more would ruin the fun.

Little Dog Laughed is a really odd show to see now, newish, in 2010 (it was written in 2005). I can accept that there still might be people in America and England that are uncomfortable with being gay, but, given how many actors are gay, it just all seemed a little hard to swallow. The whole thing would be completely intolerable if the agent weren’t a lesbian, but, since she is, her “homophobia” really reads as simply an accurate reading of what the American viewing public wants to see (an actor “women can dream of, and men can envy”). Her desire to suppress whatever truth about her “property” she needs to in order to keep him marketable is venality, ultimately, except … well … a 30 year old gay actor who is actually still not willing to admit to himself what gender he is attracted to? I couldn’t buy it. The playwright attempts to jazz the whole thing up with some really fresh dialogue, and succeeds in making a brilliant “actor and his manager negotiate with a playwright” scene, but as an overall work it felt clunky, like it had been written in college by someone destined to go into sitcoms.

I’ve got to give a nod to the costume and set designer for a beautiful palette of black, white and grey – I’m not used to having the actors match the furniture, but this worked for me. And Greig was just hot as the clawing, game-playing agent willing to step all over her client’s personal life to get herself ahead of the Hollywood game. She struggled a bit in the opening scene (the audience interaction was very clunky especially given how unresponsive we were), but went on to basically set the stage on fire for the rest of the show. Friend wasn’t really able to match her, unfortunately, but like Jessica Rabbit, I think this was more about how he was written than a bad performance. Lloyd seemed human and believable, but Arterton wasn’t able to make her character seem like anything more than filler while the set was being changed.

A little bit about the Garrick: the theater is one that I remember both fondly and with aggravation, from when I saw Zorro there; while I loved the show, I was incredibly frustrated with the blocked view of the upper two-thirds of the stage from my way-under-the-balcony seats. Fortunately there was no swinging from chandeliers or second story swordplay (or singing) to drive me batty in my row Q seats – just two little scenes in which someone stood in an open doorway which was blocked (grr!) utterly by the light clamped on to the roof above. Aaargh! Garrick, you win again! But, you know, it was kind of a potluck with the seats anyway, and, as I was asked afterward, I was entertained sufficiently to not mind. Still, this was a fairly slight night overall.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, January 19th, 2010. The Little Dog Laughed continues booking through 10th Apr 2010. A review of the

Review – Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – National Theatre

January 15, 2010

Russian history? Tom Stoppard? And yet you say – only an hour? I was worried that EGBDF would be an unbearably pretentious evening, but assured that I had a sixty five minute window before my chance to exit – to exit permanently for the night – I decided to take the chance. And hey, a Travellex show, so only £10. What’s not to like?

In fact, though it felt much longer than it was, EGBDF did not wear out its welcome. Its conceit, of a man (Julian Bleach) in an asylum who hears a symphony (which is actually on stage) playing constantly, worked fairly well for me. He talked to them, he gave them directions, they underscored his actions and words on stage, it was all fine and fun and just a wee bit over the top but there you have a show at the National with more budget than it knows what to do with. Yes, indeed, EGBDF is known as “that play where there’s a full orchestra on stage,” and fortunately the orchestra (both as creator of sound and collection of people) actually adds to the story instead of just being a sort of very expensive set piece a la the helicopter in Miss Saigon.

But of course since it’s Russia we have to have Grand Sadness, in this case people struggling for freedom against the regime. (Since EGBDF was written in 1974 it was a bit more topical but in this instance the subject now appears very much historical.) This gives us the other character, a man who is sane but is in prison because of his political beliefs (Adrian Schiller). He finds it unbearable to be incarcerated with a genuine lunatic (and a kind of scary one at that), and to make it all the more tragic he has a son who is suffering without his dad there to guide him. A bit of comedy comes in when the patients turn out to both have the same name, not to mention when the prison doctor is revealed to be a violinist. The darkness, however, is almost unrelenting despite the bits of leavening.

The play makes some points about how bizarre the Soviet regime was, emphasized by having the musicians artfully beaten on stage, and proves its legs by providing parallels with the “now,” in which once again we see people can be imprisoned for having “the wrong books” and jailed because their opinions “incite hatred.” How long is it really before we resort to judgments of insanity and verdicts of hard labor for our malcontents? But the play itself is just a short story brought to life, ultimately, and not the best short story at that – it’s hardly “Metamorphosis.” Still, though, it wasn’t a bad night out, and it’s probably good in this age of Russian billionaires to remember how things used to be, and think upon how easily they could be that way again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, January 13th, 2010. It continues through February 17th.)

Theater deal: “A Life in 3 Acts” (Soho Theater) for £5 & writing contest

January 13, 2010

Last night I read about this contest the Evening Standard is running in conjunction with the Soho Theater and its production of “A Life in Three Acts” (with Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill). Basically you write your life up in one of a variety of formats, then have it performed on stage for one special evening! (It says you pick an actor of your choice, but seriously, I don’t think Nick Garrison or Alan Cumming are likely to play me no matter how hard I ask – if they were even available.)

In addition, the play itself sounds really interesting – there was an article about it in the paper. I’d never heard of “Bette Bourne, Soho legend and pioneer of gay theatre,” but I want to find out, and to make it sweeter, the night they’re showing the play written by the audience (10th February), they’ve got £5 tickets. I just booked mine (call the Soho Theatre box office – 0207 478 0100 – and ask for the “Evening Standard.” Limit of 2 tickets per booking) – what a deal.

I know not all of you can enter this contest, but I am fascinated and will be doing it. (Here’s the link if you want to see it on the website.) I think a lot of you might find it fun to do just for the heck of it.

“London Artists Projects and the Evening Standard celebrate the opening of A Life in Three Acts with Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill by giving you the chance to have your life performed in a hundred words or less by an actor of your choice.

To be in the running, send us your story, script, or even a poem, in a hundred words or less and name the living actor you’d most like to play you.

A Life in Three Acts – your chance to have your life performed by an actor of your choice

London Artists Projects and the Evening Standard celebrate the opening of A Life in Three Acts with Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill by giving you the chance to have your life performed in a hundred words or less by an actor of your choice.

To be in the running, send us your story, script, or even a poem, in a hundred words or less and name the living actor you’d most like to play you.

We will then do our best to cast your chosen actor to perform your story as part of a Standard Readers’ Night on Wednesday 10 February at 7pm at Soho Theatre, to be followed by a performance of A Life in Three Acts at 7:30pm.

A Life in Three Acts is the award-winning show on the life of legendary actor and drag queen Bette Bourne as told on stage by Bette himself and the playwright Mark Ravenhill. The story moves from a post-war East End childhood, through to Soho in the swinging 60s, gay lib in the 70s, and on to the immortal Bloolips Theatre Company in the 80s and 90s in London and New York. The piece marks a different series of events in Bette’s life to reveal a portrait of an amazing individual and celebration of the momentous struggles and achievements of gay liberation.

Entries are open until 23.59 on 31 January and will be judged by playwright Mark Ravenhill, Fiona Hughes – Arts Editor for the Evening Standard, writer and journalist Paul Burston, and Artistic Director of Soho Theatre Lisa Goldman.

To book your £5 tickets to the Standard Readers’ Night on 10th February, call Soho Theatre box office on 0207 478 0100 and quote Evening Standard at the time of booking (limit of 2 tickets per booking). You don’t need to enter the competition to attend the Readers’ Night but it’s a lot more fun if you do!

A Life in Three Acts is a London Artists Projects production in association with Soho Theatre

Review – Into the Hoods – Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

January 6, 2010

I was excited to hear that last year’s popular show Into the Hoods had been revived at the Southbank Centre for a Christmastime run. Last year, with the TTT’s enthusiastic review and Clement Crisp‘s strange passion for hip hop encouraging me, I tried to get some tickets rather way too far toward the end of the run, and was ultimately unsuccessful. Then I almost totally screwed myself out of going to see this despite knowing about it a month before it opened as, to my shock, even THREE WEEKS before the end of the run, the it was nearly sold out. WTF! Was there something going on I didn’t know about? There weren’t any sales or discounted tickets as far as I knew, it was just selling like hotcakes!

As it turns out, of COURSE I was about a decade behind the times, or maybe two: the house was PACKED, and not with my usual crowd of gray hairs or the National’s oppressive smother of bourgies, but with kids, KIDS, kids! Kids in their early twenties, in their teens and tweens, and even a few of the under ten set (one of whom was dancing on the stage to the pre-show DJ in the bar). I couldn’t believe how busy it was! And when we went into the hall for the show (start time 7:45, run time estimated at 80 minutes), and the lights went down, and the announcer said, “We wanna hear you enjoying yourselves!” damned if they didn’t roar.

And they roared and they roared all night. Me, I found it all way more amateurish than I expected. The dancers seemed like “fans” rather than pros and struggled to do unison movement; the cheesy animated background spoke of lack of budget; and, despite having several characters who were supposed to sing, every sound that came over the loudspeaker was prerecorded. And I’d been hoping for some kind of clever joke on the whole Sondheim thing, but it was nowhere to be found. Honestly, even the whole fairy tale trope wasn’t done very thoroughly. We had characters with names like those in fairy tales – “Rap”unzel, Spinderella, Red Riding Hood — but the stories were really thin. I also didn’t like the overarching story of the two kids who have to, as it turns out, steal something from each of the four main characters in order to complete some poorly defined quest. First it was an incredibly negative concept; and then, when they find them, nothing happens!

Buuuut …. well, let’s judge it on its own merits. This was basically trying to be a low budget entertainment in which a bunch of dance was presented with a bit of a story gloss, and the fairy tale was enough to hold it together. Red and her boyfriend Jack had good chemistry happening, and I really felt it when she was stolen away from him by the “wolf.” And while I didn’t think the fairy tales made sense, I really grooved on the idea of all of these people living in this same shitty place really having big dreams about their lives. They were doubtlessly very different dreams than those that the kids of, say, the National’s audience would have, but they were good dreams and I wanted to see them achieve them, so I rallied behind the characters and wondered what the dreams of people who actually lived in housing projects are like.

And the dance. Well, while it was not as tight as I would like to have seen it, it was often inventive and fun. My favorite scene was in the old folks home, where granny and gramps suddenly cast away their walkers and their wheelchairs and started getting jiggy (the guy who played Jack really stood out in this scene). I was also pleased to see the company was solidly half female, and, in fact, most of the “star” roles were women. And the choreography/staging also demonstrated that you can do stuff on the cheap and really make it work, as in the scene in which Jack and “The Giant” do a slo-mo, Matrix like fight for Jack’s Ipod, all while they’re being carried by other cast members to simulate walking in the air (etc.), then repeat it in ultra-slow motion to show the silly things they were doing during the fast bit (like answering a cell phone). I loved the cleverness and I liked the dance, and, hey, Spinderella moved like a freaking dream. Who was that girl with one shoe off and one shoe on? I spent the evening waiting for her to get solos so that I could admire her effortless, polished movement, and I still don’t know her name.

So while this show didn’t really do what I expected it to, I still enjoyed it, and at 80 minutes without interval it was the perfect, gentle entry back into theater in the week after New Year’s. Such a pity it’s closing so soon; based on how enthusiastic the audience was, there should be a performance like this every week.

*Teenaged Theatre Critic, or as he is now known, the Tyro Theatre Critic.

(Into the Hoods continues through Sunday, January 10th, 2010. This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 5th, 2010.)

Cheap tickets, cheap restaurants: what theater goers wanted in 2009

January 2, 2010

Apparently my reviews of shows are not NEARLY as interesting to people as where I like to eat beforehand and how I work to keep my ticket prices down. Figuring that with a new year I might have a look at how my blog has performed over the last 365 days, I looked at my stats and here’s the most popular posts I’ve written.

#1 most viewed post this year? Best (Top Ten +) cheap restaurants in London’s West End Theatreland. Clearly while different people may want to see different shows, everyone is interested in getting a decently priced dinner beforehand. I may only go to a given theater once or twice a year, but a good restaurant will see me visiting every month, or even close to weekly in the peak of the season.

2nd most viewed post this year? 12 best ways to get cheap theatre tickets in London. Once again, any individual show may not interest any given person, but lots of people want to know how to see theater while not getting hit in the pocketbook. And given how random it is (seemingly) whether or not you’ll enjoy a different show, this seems like a pretty fair concern. I don’t want to pay 50 to see any show, really; it’s just too much money.

Oddly, my third most popular post was not even for a show in London: it was a review for South Pacific at the Lincoln Center. This was certainly a good show but I have no idea why so many people came to my blog when there were perfectly respectable reviews out there from paid professionals. Still, it was a highlight of my trip to New York, and a rare example of when I paid more than fifty quid for a ticket (seventy five I think). This was my sad introduction to the economics of theater in New York. No wonder it’s fallen so out of style in the US; more state support would do wonders for encouraging people to go to the theater in America – by making it affordable.

My fourth most popular post, Shen Yu "Divine Performing Arts" Ensemble – Chinese Art Spectacular at the Royal Festival Hall – showed (for me) the value of reviewing a touring show, as it draws people to the blog as the show itself makes its way around the globe. This post has also become popular as “proof” of the evil of Fa Lun Da Fa/Fa Lun Gun. That really upsets me, as I was criticizing the production as an artistic performance, not criticizing the religious belief of those who performed in it. Still, I think that it’s important that people who are thinking of seeing this show know that it’s also very much a celebration of Fa Lun Gung and make their decision on whether or not to see it with full knowledge of what they’re in for.

My fifth most popular post was for La Clique at the London Hippodrome. This show had a very long run, through June, then reincarnated as a fun Christmas event at the Roundhouse. I was glad to be able to point people toward it, and also give some insight into the strange seating situation at the Hippodrome.

In sixth this year was a fairly late arrival, a review of Nation at the National Theatre. This show was a spectacular letdown and I kicked myself for buying full price (thirty quid in the balcony!) seats. It’s one of the reasons I’m deliberately planning to see fewer shows this year; I just can’t afford to be wasting my time and money on dreck.

Seventh most popular this year was a show that let me down shockingly, Annie Get Your Gun (with Jane Horrocks) at the Young Vic. Considering that it had its run extended, someone must have really loved it, but it wasn’t me.

Surprisingly popular, an event that only happened three times was my eighth most viewed post of the year, Romeo Castellucci's shocking … ly pretentious Inferno and Paradiso, part of the Barbican Spill Festival. I think this performance must have toured; I can only hope the time I put into typing it up spared someone else the pain.

Ninth and another surprising hit from last winter’s trip to the states was my review of City Ballet’s The Nutcracker, in, of course, New York City. It’s part of a tradition I have of seeing a different Nutcracker every year, and the popularity of this post justified my hard work getting this written up while I was on vacation. Theater review blogging; not just a hobby, it’s a vocation and sometimes, it’s just work. But I’m still surprised that this was my 9th most popular post – again, better writers have reviewed it.

#10: Three Days of Rain at the Apollo Theatre. I have no idea why so many people have chosen to read my review of this less than spectacular show, though I did get a lot of traffic from being linked to on a fan site for one of the actors. Actually, this is exactly why I got so much traffic. Tips for getting more people to read your reviews: write up shows that have famous TV or movie actors in them. Disappointing fact: this may lead you to see bad shows.

Celebrity casting was, in part, why I went to see Phedre at the National Theatre – big star (Helen Mirren) in a well-advertised show. Unfortunately I thought it was a big flop, but because I got my review in while it was still in previews, piles of people read it while, I assume, they were deciding whether or not to see the show. This was my 11th most popular post and it marked a watershed for me, in trying to see shows early enough to drive reviews by being first out of the gate. Unfortunately it led to me seeing a lot of crap shows. I’m going to fix that this year.

Though this was only meant to be a “top ten” list, I feel obliged to extend this to number 12, Phil Willmott's musical "A Christmas Carol” at the King’s Head Theatre. This is the post that’s got me the most vitriol of any I’ve put up. Let me tell you: insult some fringe show and these people are all over your ass, calling you names, making it personal. No, I did not drag the show through the mud because I had a personal vendetta against some cast member I’d been dating. In fact, I didn’t even drag it through the mud – I just criticized it’s completely unhistorical costuming, unacceptable plot changes, and willful misrepresentation of Charles Dickens’ life story. Seriously, you can’t just alter the facts of a well known historical figure’s life and expect to get away with it. This, apparently, gave someone the right to call me a heartless bitch. The facts, I suppose they are a cruel mistress. However, by reviving this under-reviewed play – and putting it on at the same venue as last year – the production team unwittingly gave me a site traffic bonanza. Thanks, guys! Too bad I don’t make any money off of this gig.

At any rate, this recap was an interesting way to see what drove visitors to my site. I’ll keep my restaurant reviews updated and be sure to let you know of hot deals for hot shows when they come through – though the actual number of reviews is likely to go down. Thanks for coming by and wishing you all good shows in the cheap seats next year! (And hey, if you manage to save money on a really good show, why not make a donation to the theater if it’s a non-profit? You may deserve affordable seats, but they deserve to keep operating, and your money makes a vital difference. Sadlers’ Wells, the Arcola, the Tricycle, the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Battersea Arts Centre and the Barbican, and of course those old warhorses The National Theatre and the Royal Opera House … they choose to be venues that have some, most, or all seats priced affordably and you should support them in their missions to produce good, original art. Without them, London performances could be as out of reach