Archive for June, 2010

Summer fun at the Young Vic – two shows for £10 each (Joe Turner & Beauty Queen)

June 23, 2010

Got an email today with what I’d consider a burning hot tip in terms of value on the pound – the Young Vic is selling tickets for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Beauty Queen of Leenane as a package for £20 for both. Now, I’d consider this production of Joe Turner flawed, but it’s worth £10, and The Beauty Queen of Leenane is one of the most powerful scripts I’ve ever seen performed, so I’d say this is worth your effort especially if you’re a penny-pinching theater goer like me. I mean, not everyone’s got sixty quid just laying around so you can see All My Sons. Beauty Queen runs July 15-August 21st, and Joe Turner wraps up July 3rd, so you can take a nice long break between shows and still feel like you got your money’s worth. On the other hand, if Joe Turner’s just really not your kettle of fish, the first two weeks of Beauty Queen are £10 all on their lonesome. But buy the deal and support the theater, that’s what I say.

This deal is only available for phone bookings at the Young Vic box office. Call 020 7922 2922 and quote ‘2 for £20’ sayeth the email.

Review – The Day Before Spring – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

June 22, 2010

Of the many treats of 2010, the one that I think will stand toward the top for me is my very late discovery of the Lost Musicals series at Sadler’s Wells. I nearly succumbed to their tag line last year (“neglected works by America’s finest theater writers and composers of the Broadway musicals”) but was put off by the thought of somehow making it from the southernmost depths of Zone 3 to Sadler’s Wells on a Sunday. How would I do my grocery shopping? How would the garden get by? What about the rain? And wasn’t it a danger to make it a habit to see theater on a Sunday, thereby eliminating MY only day of rest?

Well, it’s now my second show, and the endless trek to Angel has become much worse thanks to a series of weekend closures (thanks, TFL!), but these days you’ll find me making my way north on roller skates if that’s what it takes. I think in some ways my “road to Islington” conversion kind of marks crossing a line from musicals fan into full-on musicals nerd. I’m no longer content to see what’s new: I want to see what’s great, and by God back in the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s they were cranking one hit out after another in an environment where the audience was thick and the talent was thicker. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that in this era, even great creatives (per the judgment of history) might have had shows that fell by the wayside; and thus we have not just Cole Porter’s “Paris” (the late-winter production) but Lerner and Loewe’s “The Day Before Spring,” which, as it turns out, I went to see the day before summer.

Normally I’m not one to plump out my blog with plot summaries, extensive song lists, show history and such, but I feel like I should make an exception for the shows in this series. If you go to see them, you have the advantage of Ian Marshall Fisher’s really nice introduction, full of detail not just about how a show came to be, but what kind of reception it got, who was in it, and how it fell into his hands. However, there’s not much available online, so I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps in the record with my recollection of the mini-lecture. Day Before Spring was found by someone doing research in the Long Beach State University library. The script itself was a very early production of Lerner & Loewe (their second?) that had a six month run on Broadway in 1945 and was never done again when it closed in 1946. It’s mostly set at a reunion for “Harrison College,” a thinly veiled version of Harvard (where Lerner went to school), where Katherine Townsend (Madeleine Worral) and her husband Peter (Henry Luxemburg) are going with their own agendas – Peter to hobnob with some bigwigs, Katherine to rekindle her college romance with now-famous author Alex Maitland (David Habbin). Well, actually, she doesn’t want to rekindle her romance, but once she sees him – and knowing that his soppy novel is based on the life he imagined they would have together – she just can’t resist.

The show is not just full of clever lyrics and witty dialogue (as expected) but is suprisingly liberal for the era and quite inventive. We have a husband-hunting woman (Christopher Randolph, played by Kaisa Hammerlund) who is rude to everyone who’s not her intended and does a great song called “My Love is a Married Man;” this is nicely matched with the ludicrous “statue” trio (really a quartet) in which Plato, Voltaire, and Freud try to convince Kathy of what she should or should do with her love life. (Plato: “Keep your life forever symphonic; go back to your husband and keep it Platonic!” Freud: “The symptoms you exhibit show emotions you inhibit!”) But the cake was taken by the song “Friends to the end,” in which the various male alums tell each other that infidelity, homosexuality, and even having a child by another man are all completely fine – as long as people are sticking with sleeping with people from Harrison. I have to say, given when this play was written, my jaw was dropping during this song – though it was all just too funny. Still, though, conventions of a sort must be honored, and no comedy can really end with a wife leaving her husband. I doubt Kathy really ends the play any happier; perhaps she’ll realize later a juicy affair will take care of that need for a little extra spark – as long as she keeps it within Harrison.

As ever, the show is done with a minimum of extra fuss; the performers are all in evening wear, they sing from a notebook, and chairs provide all of the set. Still, there’s enough staging to really engage the imagination. My favorite was during a scene when Kathy and Alex are singing about their happy new life together, when the singers all came forward and stood in a line for the couple to run in front of, behind, and between, as if they were in a forest. It was really nicely done and I have to tip my hat to Ian Marshall Fisher for knowing how to do just enough to bring the show alive with absolutely zero money spent on anything extra.

The singing was as good as it was last time (thankfully unamplified), and it was easy to focus on the lyrics. I especially enjoyed Worral’s voice, and I thought she captured the role well: still a romantic, but old enough to have had some of her youthful enthusiasm drained away. Luxemburg tended to speak his words rather than sing them, which was certainly a way of showing his character, but I found myself wondering if there was actually any music at all to his role after hearing him shuffle through “Where’s My Wife.” Underneath it all you could hear the bursts of genius to come; the first act ended with a chord transition that clearly hinted at “I Could Have Danced All Night.” But with lovely new songs to enjoy like “You Haven’t Changed At All” (the earworm of the production), enjoying this show wasn’t just about anticipating what was to come; “The Day Before Spring” shows talent that is clearly already in bloom. There are a few more performances left, and I have to say that any musical fan would be well advised to attempt to catch this show, which isn’t available as a movie or even as a score. As for me, I’ll be booking my tickets to the final show of the season soon; then waiting eagerly for next year and whatever crop of obscurities we’ve been lucky enough to have Fisher find for us.

(The Day Before Spring continues at Sadler’s Wells through July 11th – on Sundays only, of course. The final show for the season is Darling of the Day, which opens August 22nd.)

Review – Dangerous – Above the Stag Theatre

June 20, 2010

Above the Stag has become the only pub theater in London I frequent; its emphasis on gay-friendly productions dovetails nicely with my own theatrical interests. Their summer season started on Wednesday with Dangerous, an all-male version of “Dangerous Liaisons.” I’d convinced my friend Andrew to come with me based on that, but apparently I confused him a bit; he thought it was being done a la Pirates of Penzance, with the roles being male and female but all played by men. No, no, let no one be misled, this play is about gay men scheming about who they sleep with and treating it all like a game with no rules as long as one achieves one’s goals. It’s very much in keeping with the original “Dangerous Liaisons,” provided you’re clear (let me repeat) that all the roles are male and the setting is modern London (and Bournemouth, described originally as Brighton, which is clearer for the geographically challenged such as myself). Even better, the website promised “this production contains male nudity,” which, given that I was planning on going as part of my birthday celebrations, made it all seem even more enticing.

NOTE: the program appears to have credited the wrong people with the wrong roles. I am assuming blond Matthew Blake is Alexander Valmont and brunette Luke Harris is actually Marcus; if the actors in fact have the wrong pictures attached to the program and not the wrong names, my apologies.

So I was a large glass of rose’ to the wind when the show started, figuring that would lead to the greatest enjoyment and enhance the general joie de vivre of the evening. As the lights brightened, we had a piercingly blue-eyed Rosemonde (Stewart Dunseith) playing Scrabble with the shifty schemer Marcus (Luke Harris); Rosemonde is apparently not long for this world and Marcus’s working on getting his name at the top of Rosemonde’s will. As R retires for the evening, our other major schemer, Alexander (Matthew Blake), appears. Marcus wants to whinge about how his lover is cheating (well, almost) with his personal trainer Jason (Jon R Harrison), who rather insultingly isn’t even putting out as he’s waiting for “twoo wuv” before sex; Alexander, meanwhile, is crowing about his new infatuation with an almost-priest he “accidentally” maneuvered into finding him in flagrante. Can Alexander seduce this soon-to-be man of the cloth? More importantly, can he use his “no one can resist me” charms to wreak revenge on Marcus’s faithless boyfriend – by seducing his personal trainer – and thus win the prize of a night with Marcus?

Well, if you’ve seen the movie or read the book, there aren’t a lot of mysteries here about the story that is going to be told; the joy is all in watching it unfold, as the heartless duo put their pieces into play – and get a piece or two on the way. The lies and tales all become increasingly hysterical, as Alexander portrays himself to one person as a near-suicidal, wanna-be straight boy and to another as a selfless soul who only wants to see young love united; meanwhile Marcus is manipulating one person after another and making sure that the final outcome will be the one to most benefit himself.

Making this play modern and gay-male oriented made it a hell of a lot of fun; we have characters emailing and texting each other, posting incriminating videos on the internet, and generally creating as much trouble as modern technology can make possible. I also felt the emphasis on a culture of gossip and reputation might be one that felt more real in a more closed society than that that is London as a whole; I could absolutely believe that one could easily be very well known very quickly in such a scene, a critical element for making the tension seem real. And the differences between London and Brighton seemed very natural; overall, the translation from the original setting to this one worked well. An

The cast was a bit mixed, but I’m pleased to say our leads were not only handsome but also convincing, both as they lied to their “friends” and as they lied to each other – and to themselves. I especially loved the scene when Alexander shoved chocolate rolls into Jason’s mouth, leaving poor Mr. Harrison with so much food in his mouth he could barely finish his scene, which ends with a kiss. It was positively sadistic. I’m afraid I was laughing so hard I might have disturbed the actors; on the other hand, a woman at the end of the row was apparently providing a running commentary throughout the play, which was so noticeable the cast members were talking about it after the show. (“She was wonderful! We wanted her to come every night!”) However, I had some problems with the ending, in which Rosemonde finishes the Scrabble game with the word “schemer.” A fifty point, seven letter bonus? How was that possible when he had clearly just put the word on so it met up with another one? It would have had to have been six letters at the most! Of course, I had originally heard “schema” (damn those English accents) so I was even more wrought up before Andrew clarified my mistake. Oh well. Overall, I had a grand time, and if you like your plays rude, raunchy, and fun, Dangerous is probably right up your alley.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, June 18th, 2010. Dangerous continues through July 11th and will be followed by Blink Twice, which I’m REALLY chuffed about seeing.)

Mini-review – Dream of the Dog – Trafalgar Studios

June 19, 2010

Dream of the Dog was recommended to me by a friend when I asked, “Just what good is on right now?” It seemed between London Assurance and All My Sons that pickin’s had been slim on the London stage this spring. I only had a week left to see the show before it closed (and today is its last day); I had to get a move on or miss out. I didn’t even bother with getting cheap tickets (Trafalgar Studios downstairs is never that much anyway) or a date; with a promise of an 80 minute running time, I threw all caution to the wind and bought a full priced ticket for one. Can’t remember the last time I did that!

The play was billed as a confrontation between modern South Africa and old South Africa, in the guise of (old) white farm owners Patricia and Richard Wiley (Janet Suzman and Bernard Kay) versus their former gardener Looksmart (Ariyon Bakare). (There’s also a fourth character, Beauty – Gracy Goldman, I think – the servant of the Wileys, who, like Looksmart, grew up on the farm but never moved away.) It all sounded very “truth commission” and just too damned sincere to be my sort of a show; but it outstripped any preachiness and moved into the kind of digging up the past drama that characterizes the best of Ibsen and Miller (Arthur Miller of course).

The strength came from the deep characterizations Craig Higginson created: rather than being mouthpieces for a straw-man morality tale, all four characters were well-rounded and fascinating, each having a relationship with the other that clearly went beyond the short time we see them together, despite an initial clunkiness with Looksmart (he just seemed to angry and brittle when he showed up and verging on stereotypically violent). Mr. Wiley, who would have been easy to have been a panto villain, was instead painfully human, while maintaining a core of mystery that, to me, seemed appropriate given how even his wife knew so little of him.

But the story itself is also tense and fast moving, with each twist and turn coming as a surprise (to me); I feared it was going to turn into a giant lecture until the character of Patricia was finally allowed to blossom; suddenly forty years of living on an isolated farm came into focus, and even more, going back into her childhood; I felt I understood more of what her situation would have been like than I ever could have imagined, that the compromises and blind spots all came together into a whole, believable human being, who had her own cares and concerns and desires to make her life count for something; and suddenly she too was no longer some Angry White Almost Slaveholder but a real person, with real connections to the people she lived with for so many years. Then Dream of the Dog became, not just a historical artifact, not just a whodunnit, but a rich depiction of real people suffering real pain, something that, I think, will transcend the historical situation it depicts as well as All My Sons is not just about the post-war period in America. Janet Suzman has to get high credit for her work; she was so believable I wanted to reach forward and pat her arm reassuringly. But, in fact, the whole cast was good, and I found this a great tonic to the poor production of Joe Turner I’d seen the week before; here was a mixed race cast doing a show about something that really mattered that was truly absorbing and finely acted, a real change from the weak milk I’d been served up at the Young Vic.

There is a 3 PM matinee today and a 7:45 show tonight that closes the run out: drop what you’re doing and get your tickets now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, June 17, 2010. It closes tonight.)

Review – All My Sons – Apollo Theatre

June 17, 2010

All My Sons is a play that didn’t hit my radar until after it opened. I’ve seen Henry Miller Arthur Miller but not considered him great; the cast (as ever) meant nothing to me; and, in keeping with my New Year’s resolution of seeing “less plays, but enjoying them more,” I didn’t bother booking tickets on spec just to get in an early review. But then the reviews started coming in, and with the quick glance at the West End Whingers’ surprisingly generous allocation of wine glasses on top of ShentonStage’s enthusiastic (possibly “raving”) opening night tweets, suddenly All My Sons was on the map and rocketing into must-see levels. A couple of quick glances at various papers showed similar levels of enthusiasm, and then it was off on the hunt for tickets, and quickly, before they became impossible to get at anything approaching affordable prices. TKTS was showing availability on early-weekday nights at half price, but LastMinute wasn’t really coming through: all signs pointed to “hit!” But then I had a bit of good luck; a friend of mine who’s hearing impaired wanted to go, and thanks to her I actually got to sit in the stalls for half price (nicely situated for her to lip read) – row F on a Tuesday night.

My efforts were well rewarded and I think my summary judgment on this show is that, for once, the West End’s got something that is worth paying full price. The cast is good, and effortlessly American; and the script is powerful, succeeding both in creating characters that are realistic and intriguing, and a plot that rockets along like Ibsen’s best, leaving you wide-eyed and excited at intermission because you want to know what’s going to happen next. I had no idea, as I’d carefully avoided reading too much plot: a nice and spoiler-free summary is “the card-house of lies Joe Keller (David Suchet) had built comes crashing down on his head, and he knows he cannot escape.” (I think I saw this in the Metro’s review, so no credit for originality.) Miller deftly captures the venality at the heart of American culture; while England may be a nation of shopkeepers, America is more of a nation of salesman and manufacturers, always looking for the better deal, and valuing the “almighty dollar” above anything else. This is how we get disasters like the BP oil slick visited on us; greed and industry-favoring deals are in the nation’s blood. At the same time, Miller shows a country where people do, well and truly, love each other, and not just because of family ties; and a population of people who can have very high standards … but too often find them, eventually, compromised. This gives the story, set clearly a few years after World War II (yet vaguely in “an American town” – I imagine Michigan or Illinois), a lovely timelessness that make the historical references mere markers to give us context*.

Playing characters this complex is tricky, I think, but the cast uniformly managed to not seem cartoonish in some difficult roles. Kate Keller (Zoe Wannamaker, with her strange New Jersey-ish accent) makes her belief in the existence of her missing son – with its attendant rquest for astrological charts and strange obsessions with a fallen tree – ultimately true to the core, alongside her dedication to her husband Joe in full sight of his failings; Jemima Rooper, as the missing son’s fiancée Anne Deever, initially comes off as too hard to be of the era (and so young), but as her character unfolds, her resolve becomes more reasonable and her underlying conflicts flesh out her actions and make her ability to make any connections more reasonable – still, she seemed a bit stiff.

Potentially clunkiest of them all is Joe and Kate’s son Chris. This character seems to lend itself to being a buffoonish role – either too prude, or too idealistic to be believed, or just generally so inflexible that he can’t possibly come off as a real person. But Stephen Campbell Moore must have poked around deeply to find all of the threads that could take a man who loves his family – and his father – so much, stuffed him full of the milk of human kindness, then sent him off to war to watch his men all die while he tried to hold onto whatever it was that made him himself and gave him a reason to keep on living. I really thought I was never going to warm to Chris, but after he passed through some smallish marriage and love type crisis and moved on to his relationship with his family, he came to life at last and started just to be Chris, Chris who doesn’t believe all people to be good but who truly wants them to be.

Of course the whole play rotates around dad, Joe Keller, the man whose love of his family supposedly motivates him above all else; he’s a fun businessman who takes pride in the business he’s built and seems to hold no grudges. But David Suchet lets us know in bits and pieces that there’s some pretty deep conflicts swimming below Joe’s genial, Midwestern surface; and all along the ride Suchet holds onto our reins tightly, making us feel like we are in the drivers seat until suddenly it becomes clear that he’s gone some place we never expected and we are not going to be able to turn back from this, any more than Joe can. We have reached our final destination and it is too late for us to say we meant to go somewhere else; the cart comes undone as if its nails were all simultaneously pulled and we’re left with a spinning wagon wheel and the strange feeling that it all was supposed to turn out differently, somehow. Suchet handles the role effortlessly, as if he’d spent years working a factory and playing poker with his neighbors, and every drop of his character rang true for me.

I could say a few words about the set (nice foliage; bad lighting fixtures on the house and period inappropriate lawn furniture) or the costumes (Kate’s red dress deliciously appropriate; most of the cast could entirely use a retuning to a proper 1948 look), but they’re all just side notes to a brilliant production that left me feeling exhilarated as I walked out into the night. I know this isn’t exactly the “feel good hit of the summer,” but it’s a great show and it’s left me with a hankering for a trip to see “The Crucible” as it’s also on. As for you (dear reader), I highly advise you to book tickets for this admirable play.

*Note: the only thing I found utterly mysterious in this show was the reference to “kissing at Labor Day.” For you Englishers, Labor Day is our end of summer Bank Holiday but why the kissing? Per the quite comprehensive Gurthrie Study Guide, back in the 40s there used to be carnivals over this holiday, which featured kissing booths. Who knew?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 15th, 2010. All My Sons continues through October 2nd, 2010. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com, where they are nicely compiled in a big list.)

Review – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – Young Vic

June 8, 2010

I first saw a play by August Wilson in 1996 or so, when Rutgers did a presentation of The Piano Lesson. It was the first time I’d seen a play that addressed the African-American experience in America, possibly the first time I’d seen an all-black cast on stage, and I found it very exciting. Sure, the cast was obviously personally very far from the experiences of the characters they were depicting, but I was excited by this show and what it represented: the creation of a truly American theater project.

I have long hated America’s sad hangup on Europe as a source of artistic – well, not inspiration – more like “validation.” America has a long history of looking over its shoulder to the Mother Country/ies for approval and in many ways has sought to imitate rather than innovate. August Wilson’s plays were wholly grown on American soil, of American topics and American people. As time went on from this first outing, I found out about his “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of plays documenting the black experience in the 20th century, and I’ve been trying to see all of them. I’ve found them not only an interesting historical experience (insofar as they are capturing different decades), but also a true insight into a culture hugely different from the one I grew up, even though my life was practically side by side with it. (This is not really true as I only have a few decades of my own history and grew up in the white and Hispanic state of Arizona, but still: stories of my countrymen, but stories I don’t know.) My project of seeing all his plays was helped when I moved to Seattle, where Wilson was practically playwright in residence of my neighborhood (frequently spending the day at the now-shut Cafe Septieme on Broadway) and also at the Seattle Repertory Theater, which has produced all of his plays. I, sadly, have only seen about five of them, but had to work on completing my set when I heard the Young Vic was doing Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. The Young Vic juiced it up by offering 15 pound seats the first two weeks of the run. I shifted my tickets for After the Dance and booked in for Monday, June 7th.

The story of Joe Turner runs something like this: Seth Holly (Danny Sapani) and his wife Bertha (Adjoa Andoh) run a boardinghouse in Pittsburgh of 1911. Seth makes a little money as a tinsmith, but dreams of expanding his trade into a craft shop. The boarding house is doing well, though, as African-Americans keep coming up north in floods, looking for work and more freedom than they have in the south. Seth and his tenant Bynum (Adjoa Andoh, the highlight of the play) have some conflict between the old slave/African ways and the new business/Christian ways, as Byrnum practices his “healing” for pocket change while making his way through the local pigeon population. True conflict arrives with drifter Herald Loomis (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) and his 11-ish daughter, Zonia (not sure which actress played her this night – the program wasn’t clear). Loomis is looking for his wife, whom he lost when “Joe Turner” got him – which, as is clarified later, meant when he was picked up off the street and basically kept as a slave for seven years. (I wasn’t sure if this was perhaps meant to be that he was put in a press gang or just picked up as “vagrant” on a “hanging out while black” kind of charge but it was definitely forced labor of some sort.) Seth is sure he knows where she is, but he won’t let on because something about Loomis just seems wrong to him.

For me, a lot of the pleasure of this show was seeing how the various cultural elements played out. What might life in a boarding house been like, how did newly arrived blacks make a life for themselves when they went up North, how exactly does a hoodoo man do his thing? Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I recently read, certainly gave me an insight into how daily life was lived for poor blacks in Florida in this time period, but it’s almost entirely Christian in its viewpoint and rather more into the gambling/guitar playing good times and less on how a more “normal” group of people might enjoy themselves. I also really enjoyed “meeting” the character of Seth, with his hopes of making a good stable income and being entrepreneurial – Hurston only depicts this kind of character as venal but Seth seems like a guy who really values trying to make a future. In fact, I kind of imagined him as August Wilson’s grandfather, a real pillar of the community and the reason why Wilson wanted to show the whole history of this city and its black population. When he started writing this series, Pittsburgh was already a pretty bad place to live, and I think Wilson remembered it in a much better light: Joe Turner shows Pittsburgh as a real beacon, a destination place where people could make new lives successfully.

However, it was mostly Wilson’s words that made this happen, not the performances by the cast. Just about everyone seemed off to me. Seth sounded far too educated; like nearly the entire cast, he sounded like a Californian, not like an unschooled Northern black man. The dialect speech that Wilson wrote for him (i.e “You be going out tonight?”) came out sounding forced and incomprehensible to the actor. In fact, the accents were a problem for the entire cast, who uniformly sounded like well-educated, modern, West Coast Americans. Mattie Campbell (Demi Oyediran) even goes through the list of places she’s lived – she’s Southern all the way through – yet she sounds like she scrubbed her accent clean away the moment she crossed the Mason-Dixon line. I give Neil Swain, dialect coach, credit for cleaning the English accents out of everyone, but for God’s sake, the man should sit down and listen to how actual Southern blacks speak. No African Americans would perform the roles this way, and as good as English actors are with accents, I expected a lot better than what was delivered.

This was not true for Delroy Lindo (Byrnum): his speech just sounded so natural I wasn’t thinking about the accent at all, and his performance (which had a lot of story telling) really pulled me in beyond the words. I wound up looking up to see where he’s from, and I’m not sure if his citizenship is American or British, but he’s been living in America for forty years, so that’s had to make some difference to his accent. Stil, he’s an actor, not describing his own life or using his own voice, just taking Wilson’s words and making them his own, but in his case speaking the written dialect smoothly and with the accents placed on the words so they all just flowed through him like he’d thought of them on the spot. Lindo sounded right saying them: full credit for an on-the-money performance; he is the star of this show in my eyes and it was a real coup for the Young Vic to get him in this show.

I feel bad about harping on about American accents again, given that I generally dislike the obsession this country has with using accents to figure out everything (and nothing) about people, an obsession I think comes from the UK’s ongoing cultural weirdness about class; but if the dialogue sounded like the actors were having to spit out marbles while they talked, something was wrong.

In fact, I think there may have been a deeper wrong in this production. I’ve previously noted that American actors don’t really seem to “get” Pinter; the reference to a “fried slice” in The Birthday Party has no meaning to an American actor and may, in fact, be mistaken as referring to bacon. I think that, in this case, the “experience” that Wilson is writing about just didn’t gel for these actors. Their own life experiences were so different, their families so different, that the common, everyday occurrences that take place in Joe Turner just don’t resonate. And the actors didn’t feel like they were living their parts. Bertha is too smiley, in a “never had a bad day in her life” kind of way; Mattie was too hang-dog; Loomis didn’t seem to have the air either of a man who had once been a preacher or a man who’d picked cotton. They were all one-note (well to be honest the child actors were both pretty good and as I’ve said before Lindo really made it happen and I’m sure he’s never killed a pigeon for fun); especially in the singing and the dancing – it was like they’d read the stage instructions and did their best to follow them but it was like they were following a recipe for something they’d never had a taste of. I’ve found the difference between the people of African descent I meet in London and the African-Americans I know remarkable; but in this case, the cultural gap was too wide for this mostly British cast to cross convincingly. Frankly, I’m glad for them that the world Wilson wrote of was not the one they grew up with or heard of from their folks; too much hate, too much bullying, too much prejudice. Who would want to be a child of Jim Crow? But in this case, the ease with which an African-American actor might have handled these roles was missing. For that reason, even though I’m glad I was able to see this play performed, I’m afraid I can’t recommend this production; it doesn’t hit the base level of competence the script demands. See it to see Wilson performed; see it to learn about a world far different from what I see performed on the English stage; but don’t go to it expecting to see excellence. And leave your nice handbags and clothing at home; the red dirt that covers the stage and is under all the seats and walkways is remarkably hard to get out of your clothes.

Review – Shochiku Kabuki’s “Yoshitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees” – Sadler’s Wells

June 6, 2010

Here is the recipe for a perfect summer evening. Take a pleasant stroll from Angel station to Tenshi Sushi (61 Upper Street). Order some perfectly (yet unpretentiously) prepared Japanese food (I’m always incapable of saying no to the seaweed sushi) – try the cold soba noodles if it’s hot out, and maybe even some iced green tea. Then at about 7:10 stroll back past the station to Sadlers Wells, grab yourself a pair of headsets, and walk in the auditorium to see Shochiku Kabuki’s presentation of Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura and (avoiding reading the program to maximize your surprise – there is one interval and three acts, that is all you need to know) settle down for two and a half hours of theatrical perfection.

Not everyone is going to agree with me, but I don’t care; they are ignorant and uncultured. This show is utterly Japanese yet completely penetrable and enjoyable by anyone who loves the theater. The costumes are gorgeous, the sets simple but richly evocative, the music a fourth dimension illustrating what is happening on stage in symbolic ways not common to the Western stage (but all explained to you by the friendly voice in your ear). There are exciting action scenes (manly hero takes on ten at a time in slow motion! Enchanted warrior monks fight each other doing back flips!), theatrical dancing (which is mimed story telling with fans), and rockin’ special effects done in a generally low-tech way that I found evidence of absolute confidence in directorial technique. And there is a Roger Rabbit moment when a man is “squeezed so hard his teeth and eyes pop out of his head,” and then an “It’s behind you!” bit when you’ll have a hard time keeping yourself from pointing out the wild animal on stage to the woman who appears to be completely ignorant of its presence: God only knows the omniscient narrator fails to breathe a word, so someone ought to say something!

All of this is packaged up in a story which is utterly not like one from the English language (or even European) stage, but is still easy to follow. We start at the Inari Fox Shrine (foxes are like fairies in Japanese culture and associated with the Shinto religion, thus a shrine), where general/prince Yoshitsune (Otani Tomoemon) is saying goodbye to his lover Shizuka (Nakamura Shibajaku). He gives her a drum (a MacGuffin in every way) to console her for his absence, and before the scene is out entrusts her to his retainer Tadanobu (Ichikawa Ebizo, the real star of the show). The question then becomes – will Shizuka and Yoshitsune ever be reunited? And then – why is Tadanobu so obsessed with the drum? The ending left me almost laughing with surprise, as it was just as much of a shock as the finale of Don Giovanni (“That never happens at my dinner parties!”) or Hedda Gabler (“What? Did they even allow that in Norway in those days?”) – so many twists and turns I never expected!

But I enjoyed the ride all the way, with the possible exception of a bit of Shizuka’s dancing in the cherry-blossom covered Mount Yoshino scene. (There were a few minutes when I suddenly went, “Just what am I watching anyway? This isn’t Legally Blonde, and I don’t get the puns!” Then I stopped worrying and went back to enjoying myself and listening to the story she was telling.) The third act pulled out all of the stops for athleticism and stage work, and suddenly I understood why Ichikawa Ebizo is the star of this show – he must have made ten entrances in one act, making it from one side of the stage to another in about two minutes while completely changing his clothes – twice! This was in addition to his leaping three feet straight up onto stage and doing a dance on a railing. I just couldn’t imagine how his knees could hold up to it – it’s certainly not the kind of work you’d expect from Simon Russell Beale.

In short, this evening is a theatrical tour de force and one that we’re very lucky to have available on the London stage. I was seeing very limited seat availability for the run, but I can’t encourage you enough to make the effort it takes to see this show. Check hourly on the day of (at the Sadler’s Wells site) to see if there are returns, and then go in the theater and stand in line if you must. I have only managed to see Kabuki four times in my life and every time I have found it both gorgeous and moving – not to mention fantastic theater. This will be the highlight of the summer London season without a doubt; I am sure Punchdrunk’s Duchess of Malfi will look amateur by comparison – even if it does wind up being second best, it will be the moon to this show’s sun.

PS: Thank you to Ichikawa Ebizo, Nakamura Shibajaku, Otani Tomoemon and the entire team for breaking the run of utterly crap shows I’ve seen lately. I was beginning to think it was just impossible for me to enjoy a show anymore, and you proved that untrue.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 5th, 2010. The production continues daily through June 15th.)

Review – Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” – Richmond Theatre (then Hampstead)

June 4, 2010

Headlong and Curve Theater have created a retelling of Oscar Wilde’s Salome that seems oh-so-very au courant and came to the Richmond Theatre for a four-day visit at the end of May, 2010, with the promise of more touring and an extended stay at the Hampstead Theatre (June 22-July 17th). Thanks to membership in the Twespians theater club, I had an offer not just for free tickets (unsure if they needed to paper the house or promote the show) but also for free wine before the show. Well, Richmond is quite out of my normal stomping grounds, but I’ve wanted to see this piece of Oscar Wilde’s performed for ages, as I am a fan of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations and I enjoyed the rather painfully over the top Alla Nazimova silent film version last year. And there was the free wine. How better to get into the spirit of this incarnation of fin-de-siecle decadence than liquored to the gills, unless perhaps I was to watch it dressed in velvet and draped in pearls?

Thank God I’d left my velvet and pearls behind, for this show was as far from any exhilarating tribute to excess as it were possible to imagine – while wholly needing the lubrication of several stiff drinks. We are given the court of Herod, in which the inhabitants supposedly have every luxury – but it is presented as a sort of Iraqi oil dump, with camo-fatigued soldiers looking rough and patrolling around with an excess of energy. The set, a black square covered in ground up tire rubber, with a few pools of black liquid on the edges and towering metal structures behind, certainly created a very modern atmosphere, but I found it completely contrary to anything implied in the text and, to be honest, all rather a bit too in love with itself. Yes, the play can be seen as some sort of rant against the powers of privilege, a screed against corruption, but in this setting, in which all poetry has been stripped away, Wilde’s words had a difficult battle to fight.

For characters and plot, we have a soldier (Sam Donovan) who has an unhealthy attraction to teen beauty Salome (Zawe Ashton), the step-daughter of Herod (Con O’Neill). Herod, meanwhile, has developed his own unhealthy attraction to Salome, which is making her mother, Herodias (Jaye Griffiths) understandably uncomfortable. Salome, utterly stuck on herself, develops her own crush: on John the Baptist (Iokanaan, played by Seun Shote), who is Herod’s prisoner. The source of her attraction is somewhat obvious: he’s the only man who is not obsessed with Salome; in fact, he repudiates her rudely (and yet poetically). And with his ramblings about whores and punishment and saviors, well, he’s just a little bit on the nutso and possibly dangerous side: perfect for a girl who’s been living perfectly sheltered in a hotbed of intrigue. Love the man her powerful “daddy” is afraid of? Perfect!

Wilde’s job is to make this story, to which we all know the ending, intriguing. Iokanaan must seem powerful and intelligent, yet manage to exert attraction even though he’s been living in a cell below the ground; Herod must seem both despotic and weak, lustful and yet frightened, so that he can hold out against Salome’s demands. In some ways, it’s like a Greek play in which we all know the plot and the playwright’s job is to ratchet up the tension without making it descend into farce. The focus on Salome and her power over others is probably the most difficult dramatic hurdle; Wilde attacks this by building up Salome’s attractiveness with lush descriptions (most of which come from the soldiers and are a delight to the ears) but also by showing every character being impacted by her. I bought into this in a way I never had with a film or the opera; Wilde’s words and setting made me see the captivation she creates be due to her being a free spirit – but also because she is a pearl in a cesspit of corruption, pure if only for seeking nothing but her own pleasure. With Iokanaan close to a force of nature, and Herod a man both oozing with power and yet afraid of his own shadow, the stage is well set for the inevitable.

In her horrid gold jumpsuit, Zawe Ashton seems unlikely to convince as this creature “with feet like doves,” but I believed in her performance as an utterly self-centered teen with no concept of consequences, only caring for instant gratification, the sun around which lesser celestial bodies fade into insignificance. She even handled the “dance of Salome” well – she seemed very much the modern, celebrity-obsessed girl, but with a bizarre belief in the value of exposing bits of her body to people in order to get them to do what she wanted. I actually found it hard to buy that anyone could go against the order of a direct boss in exchange for a view of nubile torso – but in the cooked up atmosphere of soldiers on duty in the desert, it kind of made sense.

Overall, though, I found this production depressing and as unsexy as can be. I wasn’t revolted by Salome making out with a bleeding, decapitated head; I was revolted by the ugliness of the show. Wilde has Herod talking of beautiful white peacocks with gilded beaks, of a pearl necklace that is like moons chained in threads of silver, and all of these beautiful words, every word of praise for Salome herself, has the life sucked out of it by the bleak set and the drab costumes. We hear them speak of luxury but see nothing but privation. Is our world not already coated in filth, that we should need to see Herodias stepping in a puddle of scum on stage?

In a week in which I saw three shows, this was perhaps the best; but only because it provided a singular chance to hear the worlds of Oscar Wilde spoken on stage (and the others were the abyssmal Ingredient X and bad-unto-farce Paradise Lost). A live production of Salome this was but it’s hard to say that this show brought Wilde’s words to life as this production did everything it could to ground their power and beauty into the ground like a cigarette butt. I suspect Jamie Lloyd is pleased with how he “updated” it and made it relevant to modern audiences, but to me the production reeked of trendiness and a lack of faith in the script. Given that this show is running through a lovely summer, I can only advise you to take a lovely picnic and a few friends and read it to each other outside, in a field of flowers, where you can laugh and laze and enjoy yourself. Be sure to bring some cold white wine, and when you think about how fleeting life’s pleasures are, raise a glass to Salome and to poor Oscar, then be grateful you’re not inside watching this horrible show.

(This review is for a performance that took place at Richmond Theater on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010. Salome will continue to tour through the end of June, hitting the Oxford Playhouse, the Northern Stage, and Theater Royal Brighton before settling down for a run at the Hampstead. Don’t say you weren’t warned. For other opinions, please see There Ought to be Clowns and of course the compendium at UpTheWestEnd.com, which should grow as the majors review this play.)

Mikhailovsky Ballet’s summer 2010 to London: Discounts available for multiple shows

June 3, 2010

If you haven’t grabbed a copy of the Mikhailovsy’s brochure for their July visit to the London Coliseum, you may have missed that there is a discount being offered when you purchase tickets to multiple shows. If you buy tickets for three ballets, you get 10% off; 15% for four ballets and 20% off if you go to all five. With an embarassment of riches over their visit (July 13-25th), it’s really easy to fill that basket with three shows at once. I’m not sure about going to see Swan Lake (I try to see this just once a year and I already saw ENO do it), but kids’ ballet Cipollino is a must and I’ll absolutely be at Laurencia, which is a world premiere … well, of its revival, and it’s not really a world premiere as it’s debuting in St. Petersburg beforehand, but I don’t care. It’s certainly a ballet that I’ve never seen before and I absolutely wil be there. I’m also excited about the Triple Bill, which I think will be fun. However, even though tickets can be had for as little as £15, I think I’ll be skipping Giselle, which I saw them perform two years ago. It was a good show, mind, but I’m planning on sneaking off to the Royal Opera House to see the hideously overpriced Bolshoi version. Given that top priced tickets for the Bolshoi are £122 and the same show can be seen at the London Coliseum for £75 before the 20% discount (if you buy tickets for all five Mikhailovsky shows), I’d say for the person who wants to see all of the Russian ballet they can this summer, the Mikhailovsky series at the London Coliseum can’t be beat.

Half priced tickets to Bounce’s “Insane in the Brain” at the Peacock 2010

June 2, 2010

Bounce’s excellent show Insane in the Brain, a hip-hop retelling of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is returning to the Peacock Theater starting June 8 (and going through June 27th). The first week (June 8-17 excluding Friday and Saturday), you can get tickets for half price, so £36 and £28 tickets are £18 and £14 with a booking fee. To take advantage of this offer, either book through the Sadler’s Wells website using the code pcdcelebrate, or call 0844 412 4322 and quote “celebrate the city offer.” This is great deal for a really enjoyable show and I urge you to take advantage of it!