Archive for August, 2010

Spoiler-free Review – Deathtrap – Noel Coward Theater (2010)

August 24, 2010

So. Deathtrap, like Mousetrap, is a play where you need to hide the ending from any readers/potential audience member (assuming they haven’t seen the film) in order to ensure they have a good time – if there is a good time to be had.

What a tricky position to be in, to figure out how to criticize a play in which most of what you say has to circle around giving away any of the key plot points! Is there really any point in reviewing a show under this kind of constraint? How honest can I be? Does it take away the whole point of writing the review?

As it turns out, in this case I had a very good evening, so I’m willing to play along with Ira Levin’s little game and keep the secret(s). What does that let me say, though? First, make sure you get a seat at row G or further back – in fact, you may just want to go for one of the balcony seats altogether. Second … hmm … if I say Deathtrap is a murder/mystery/thriller, does that tell you enough? I mean, there’s going to be a murder, you know that, right? I mean, with a title like “Deathtrap,” that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?

So: five characters in a late 70s setting. Simon Russell Beale (playing, er, a writer, but mostly he seemed to be Simon Russell Beale, not Sydney); his plucky, kooky, wife Myra (Claire Skinner, about 15 years too young for the role but somehow managing to look well over 45 anyway); a hunky young dude who seemed utterly insincere all the way through the play but made up for it by, um, being hunky (Jonathan Groff as Clifford, a younger writer); Helga the wacky Swedish psychic (the venerable Estelle Parsons, total scene stealer, she was); and straight man and Sydney’s lawyer, Porter (Terry Beaver).

For many people, the cast list alone would be enough, but I’m a burnout and I still demand a good show no matter what name player is on stage. And by golly Deathtrap delivers the goods. It is scary, it is funny, and it is so self aware of the fact it’s a play that it makes it even easier to suspend your disbelief and really get behind the totally outrageous action (and plot). I really did not expect almost anything that happened in the show, as it was so cleverly written that it outsmarted the audience by predicting its own reveals (as much of the play is about writing a play) and then going down a completely different path. Still, it’s not so frightening that I couldn’t handle it (I’m a bit of a pansy); the artifice of it all puts enough separation between you as audience and the action on stage that you don’t have to be grossed out, you can just have a good laugh. Except for … well, Simon Russell Beale making out with someone from 10 feet away, he’s really just a bit old for that kind of passionate display, but this will probably be some people’s favorite part of the show.

Anyway, this is an utterly professional, well polished production of the sort I think London does very well, and I expect audiences will be packing the house of the Noel Coward for the length of the run. Though it’s a show made to appeal to audiences rather than push them into new places, how can I fault it for doing what it says on the tin? You will have a good time, and you can thank me for keeping the secrets under my sombrero. I may be a critic (of sorts) but I do want YOU to have a good time, too.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 23rd, 2010. For another point of view, see the West End Whingers, whom I don’t think engage in spoilery activity despite warning of same. Deathtrap runs through January 22nd, 2011. I’d say it would be a real palate cleanser during panto season; you may want to wait until then to see it if you don’t manage to sneak in a cheap visit during previews, which end September 16th. And for God’s sake if you’ve come a-visiting, please go see this and not that stale old Mousetrap; so much better to run out of the theater laughing and with your heart pounding because you’ve just had so much fun and not because of an angry sense of just having wasted your evening.)

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Ticket deal – £10 off top price tix for War Horse – September 6-17 2010 only

August 21, 2010

It’s been almost a year since the National last had an offer on tickets to the much loved and highly successful War Horse. I still want to see it but I still haven’t, as I’m put off by theater with a £50 price tag; usually I can get at least three shows for that price.

However, it may be time to break down, as there simply aren’t bargains to be had for this show if you’re an adult. It never comes up at TKTS or any of the normal theater discounters, so either I need to settle with a really crappy seat (Circle Side Restricted, £15) or pay retail. And now the National is offering another deal off of top price tickets, top price for £40, which, as it turns out, isn’t quite as good as last year’s deal but only off by £2.50 so who am I to quibble. Anyway, the details are as follows:

£10 off top price tickets (usually £49.50) for Monday to Friday evening performances from 6 – 17 September 2010. Book online and enter promotion code 2997 then select date and tickets, or call 020 7452 3000 and quote ‘Members War Horse Offer’. Excludes Thursday matinees and Saturday matinee and evening performances.

There you are; enjoy.

Review – La Bête – Comedy Theatre (London – then Music Box Theater, New York)

August 17, 2010

I was a little late getting to see La Bete – the West End Whingers’ rave was well over a month old before I got a call from a friend saying, “Take me to see something good!” What can I say about July, I was just too busy to fit another show in, but then suddenly it was mid-August, I still hadn’t seen it, and I had noticed as I was planning my trip to New York that it was transferring to the Music Box Theater so there was no chance of an extension and by God, if I was going to go see it, I needed to get a move on, and my friend’s visit seemed the ideal opportunity to finally GO.

I had seen tickets available fairly regularly through the TKTS office, but they had none at all yesterday, and my fallback LastMinute.com had exactly one ticket – not really helpful! I’d really disliked the last play I saw from the uppermost balcony of the Comedy(the play was fine but the view was so bad it was actively irritating) and really didn’t want utterly crap tickets – and yet, as it turned out, the side of the first balcony ticket that I got (giving my friend the more expensive seat next to me – we split the cost for the two and used some theatre tokens to make up the difference) still had an irritatingly blocked view of about a fifth of the stage – the left side – where people insisted on standing and sitting and making entrances for rather a lot of the show. I was pretty irritated that what I had was supposed to be a 35 quid ticket – it was more like a 10 pound ticket with as much of the view as I had. Consider yourself warned.

The better question, of course, was how good was the show? Well, I didn’t know a think about it other than that one actor I’d recently been impressed by was in it and that it had a French title and that the Whingers gave it a five wine glass review – and I thought it was hysterical. Well, okay, maybe it wasn’t hysterical, maybe there was a scene or two where it was a bit slow and I assumed that it was just being dragged out because they had to get in all of the words that were in the original script, but I let that ride because I was having a good time. I was astounded by Mark Rylance’s ability to hold a stage for a 20 minute long monologue (was that it?) while his character’s offensiveness snowballed to degrees that I thought either of the two actors on stage might have hit him just to get him to shut up – when he mocked someone’s handicap it just kind of jumped the shark, as if … well, I don’t want to spoil any of the fun. Watching two characters – Rylance (playing Valere) and David Hyde Pierce (as the playwright Elomire) – go head to head in an attempt to win over Princess Compti (Joanna Lumley) was just as much fun as watching the evil, shrewd characters in a real Moliere play take each other on, and I was riveted to my seat for the entire 1:45 running time (thus making it a perfect after-work play).

In retrospect, I discovered that this wasn’t actually a rehashed Moliere play at all, but a modern American play (circa 1991) with no debt to Moliere at all other than for general flavor. The various bits of extremely modern language and excessive crassness and even the actors’ descriptions of different performance methodologies were not one of them ported over – they were all new. Still, with as much classical theater as I see, I found myself perfectly situated to enjoy this play, and the things I thought didn’t fit in terms of the “apparent” time of the play worked just as well as Shakespearean plays set in, oh, medieval Italy or ancient Greece. And the “argument” of the play within the play – and the subsequent interpretations of what it’s actual meaning was by Rylance and Hyde Pierce – was deliciously addressed to today’s modern money-obsessed theater culture. After all, did the director not cast a television actor – an American, nonetheless – in one of the lead roles, in a blatant move to make the play sell when it was ported to America? And did he not flesh it out with a transnational cult star (Joanna Lumley) and this year’s Hot Not-so-young Man on Stage?

Rather frustratingly for me (as I really would have liked to have turned my nose up at any instance of celebrity casting), the actors were actually all just really on the mark. And, maybe, when it comes down to it, this is just a piece of hollow entertainment and I’m a shallow person who mistakes clever wordplay and crass buffoonery for High Art. Well, wait, no I’m not, I know this play wasn’t really particularly deep, but it was certainly clever enough for me and a good night out, and, when it comes down to it, in my book that means La Bête richly achieved Job One of a theatrical production: it rewarded me for spending my hard earned money and not-so-copious free time in a chair in a theater. I might think it’s a bit overpriced at the rates The Comedy is charging, but it’s certainly a good show, and I think that the transfer will do very well; this should well please New York audiences looking for a witty show well done by actors at the peak of their game.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday August 16th, 2010. La Bete continues at the Comedy through September 4th, then moves to New York for a run at the Music Box theater that starts September 23rd; though that’s officially a preview I’d say don’t hesitate to book before the official opening night because this cast has spent plenty of time getting it down right and you should be getting a very fully formed show long before the official opening night of October 14th. For more reviews, please see UpTheWestEnd.com.)

Mini-review – Le Cirque Invisible – Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre

August 11, 2010

Tempted by an invite from Amy and a juicy two for one offer in the Independent (good through August 13th), last night I found myself at Queen Elizabeth hall for the first week of Le Cirque Invisible. I literally knew nothing about them other than what I’d seen on the poster and the fact that it said “circus,” but I figured for £15 I was likely to enjoy myself and after three weeks of almost nothing but ballet I was due a bit of a break.

As it turns out this two person show was delightful in the intimate environs of the Queen Elizabeth hall; I could frequently (due to my seat being on the far right) see the details well enough to answer the question of “how did he/she do that?” but I decided that I would actively avoid analyzing what was going on to figure out the secrets of the magic tricks and costume changes, and just relax and enjoy the panoply of visual stimulation. What I saw was two people, a frizzy haired man I imagined as Morpheus meets Andy Warhol via the medium of your crazy uncle (Jean-Baptiste Thierrée); he mostly did magic tricks, but they were much more funny than magical; he seemed aware as much as I was that he was doing sleight of hand, and made a joke of what he was doing rather than acting mysterious and all-powerful. He also made visual puns and played a lot with people’s anticipation of what they would see next; he also joked at himself by showing things he MIGHT do and then not doing them.

Victoria Chaplin, a lovely, slim woman with long brown hair, did mostly a series of transformations, in which the costumes she came onto stage slowly became something else; a parasol she carried became a Japanese warrior; another parasol creature turned into a strange insect that flirted with another of its kind; a dress she was wearing ate her and then evolved into a walking version of its former self. My favorite moment was her whirling in front of a projection that caught on the giant wings she was waving in the air; it was like a moment out of a movie from the early teens, and I was fascinated with the play of color and fabric. She did two other things that were more obviously technically complex, but this one moment was just unedited beauty, and I was ready to just absorb it.

One thing I did not see much of was traditional circus acts; there was almost no juggling, little acrobatics, and just a tiny bit of tight rope walking. There was, however, a bit of magic with bunnies and birds (including ducks); it’s been so long since I’ve seen an animal of any sort on stage that I was actually kind of surprised. But they all seemed happy, and the bunnies were adorable.

In short, I found this an excellent evening at a very good price. Apparently under 16s are free through the run, and for anyone with kids to entertain this month, Le Cirque Invisible is a real lifesaver. It’s not a high powered circus like Les Sept Doigts de la Main, but I found its City of Lost Children style and humor very enjoyable.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, Augst 17th, 2010. The shows continue through Wednesday 25 August 20th.)

On becoming a better dance writer

August 10, 2010

I’ve been writing about art for ages – I started writing for my college paper in 1993 (a two year long gig in which I wrote about everything from music to politics to plays), then picked it up again in 2002 when I started writing for Tablet, a bi-weekly, free Seattle arts newspaper that folded about three years later (and has since had its entire online presence entirely erased – meaning I should have kept my clips*!).

I noted at the time that I was able to review plays easily, but I only showed real genius when I wrote about art, as in “art in galleries.” That was probably due to my extensive engagement in the contemporary alternative arts scene starting back from my days in Phoenix when I worked at a place called Crash (and later The Icehouse). Maybe, then, art is what I should be writing about nowadays, but what happened in the meantime (as in “after I moved to London”) is that my personal habits changed, and I started going to plays a lot more. By a lot more, I mean weekly. Well, actually, no, I mean about twice a week, and sometimes three times a week. In fact, if you look at my records from last year, it looks like I went to see a performance about every three days. Nuts, huh? And I was writing about them all the time in my personal blog (not this one), often more than I was writing about my life.

Then one day I decided I needed to start this blog, mostly because I wanted to be free of the limitations of not boring my “audience” (my friends on the other blog site) with excessive detail about the shows I’d seen. I enjoyed writing my reviews; I wanted to really plunge into it wholeheartedly. And, truthfully, I wanted to have a venue in which I could focus on improving my skill as a writer. Successful blogging, to me, frequently depends on expressing personality, and I wanted to focus my theater writing not so much on my life (as in “where did I go out to eat before the show and who saw it with me,” not that my list of the best pre-show cheap eats hasn’t been my number one most popular post of all time), but more on just writing, and writing well, in a way that captured my voice but wasn’t about me.

I think I’ve managed to do this fairly well over the last two and a half years, but as I’ve tried to expand my reviews to cover all of the artistic events I enjoy, I’ve found a hole: my dance reviewing is weak. I’ve been trying to improve all of my reviewing through the time honored method of “doing it;” no one can write better unless they make an effort to practice their writing! I have also tried to improve my writing by getting feedback from others, but no one seems willing to say much of anything (not sure if people are just too polite or if they don’t want to give away their secrets). I did manage to get some tips from Roy Peter Clark, who had three recommendations, “READ, WRITE and TALK.” Well, he also recommended seeing shows twice, but this isn’t something either time or budget allows.

So. Write I have; talk I am trying (but really need to work on more); this leaves READ. I need to read more writing, think about it, and try to figure out how to make mine work better; not to imitate the voice of good writers, but to think about what it is they are doing that makes their writing work well. And I had the opportunity to ask my god of dance writing, Clement Crisp, whom he thought I should be reading (before a dance performance at the Linbury; meeting him broke my concentration so hard I was barely able to pay attention to ). His answer: Edwin Denby, Richard Buckle, and Deborah Jowett. I’ve bought Deborah Jowett’s The Dance in Mind: Profiles and Reviews 1976-83, but also
Roger Copeland and Marshall Cohen’s What Is Dance (as recommended by Judith Mackrell); now it remains to read these books, a hard thing when I’ve got Charles Stross and Charlaine Harris begging for a chance to take my subway ride and turn it into a trip to Disneyland.

Now you, dear reader, I ask: what can I do to improve my writer-craft? Where can I talk with other people about writing, rather than just gossip about shows (not that I’m not looking forward to the next Twespians meeting)? What can I do? What do YOU do? I have achieved volume; please help me raise my own bar. I realize I will never make a living as a writer; the field is already very competitive and just getting worse. Still, I want to be excellent; my dream is that some day, even if it is still twenty years in the future, that I too will write as memorably as Mr. Crisp does, even if I shall never be as elegant; elegance is not in my voice. I want a voice that makes dance sound as exciting to the reader as it is to me; and if I do that, I will have achieved my goal.

(Supposedly they’re on a hard drive somewhere. Meanwhile, here’s one clip I posted on my old blog. Ooh, and here’s an actual art review, fancy that!)

Great deal – 2 for 1 tickets for Le Cirque Invisible

August 6, 2010

Thanks to a discarded copy of the Independent I picked up on Tuesday, I’ve got info for a great deal: two for one tickets to Le Cirque Invisible at the Southbank Centre. Usable dates are limited: August 5-7, 10th and 12-13th August, 7:30 PM shows only; and the 2:30 PM show on August 11th 2010. It’s only good for top price tickets, but I think two people for £30 is a really good deal! Call the Southbank Centre (0844 847 9910) and quote “Independent Offer” to take advantage of this deal. The show continues through to Wednesday 25 August 2010, but the deal is only good on the dates listed above.

Review – Earthquakes in London – National Theatre

August 3, 2010

Earthquakes in London is a strange beastie of a play. Coming off of the high of author Mike Bartlett’s superb (if short) Cock (at the Jerwood last fall), I expected – well, almost nothing, really, other than his perfectly created dialogue. I certainly didn’t expect a play with a running time of three hours and ten minutes, and I never thought that anyone could have expected the audience (including me!) to STAND through the show. Admittedly this is because I am a bit thick and when I bought my tickets I sincerely did not understand what I was being offered (as there was only one type of ticket available when I bought, I didn’t realize that sitting down was even possible, or that this was to be standing and not moving as per a normal promenade show). Unless you are under thirty with particularly strong knees, you must avoid the £10 “pit standing” seats at all costs – with my sprained ankle, it was a one way ticket to hell.

Well, except, as it turns out I wound up getting a spinning bar stool in front of the swirling catwalk of a stage that wends through the middle of the Cottlesloe, and from this vantage point, with actors stripping, grinding, fainting, getting stoned, and dying in front of my very face (seat 12 FYI), I had massive, exciting theatrical overload, far better than most promenade shows. My God. It was like … really being there, or, really almost being there, but just far more immersive than almost any play I’ve ever been too – there were actors in front of me, behind me, above me, to my side, just everywhere, and the action was changing from one place to another so quickly I was whirling around like a kitten tracking a laser pointer, never sure if I was supposed to be looking at the robo-Stepford mummies rocking their prams, the strange singing men coming up through holes in the catwalk, the latex-clad nursie, one of the two cut-in stages on the opposing walls, the video projections on the sides (for once helpful, decorative in a useful but not oppressive or “we were too cheap to do this right” way), or everything at once. To make it even more clear, scenes took place in which characters were supposed to be in different places (a house and Soho) but walked through each others’ physical place on the set, leaving my brain to resolve just what was going on. I loved this; it was exhilarating. I sat there in the middle of act one going, “My God, this is a major theatrical event, and I am here for it!” Relations between sisters, very modern politics, and the end of the world hanging over it all? Where was it all going?

But … it became clear as the act wound down (some two hours in) … where we were going was to very familiar territory, in this case Playwright Gets Preachy Land. It was NOT some bizarre “deus ex machine” catastrophe designed to bring us all together, no, it was … wait for it … a three hour polemic on how We All Need To Change Our Behavior To Save The World From Climate Change. Seriously. It got into it hard core at about 90 minutes in and it never stopped shaking that rag doll. Did the question of a father and daughter both selling themselves out for financial gain really matter? Did a father’s abandonment of his family matter? Did dealing with pre-natal depression matter? Did any of the struggles that any of the characters had ever go anywhere interesting? Yeah, sure, youngest sister Jasmine (Jessica Raine, totally hot and very “on” for the whole show) took her clothes off, and Lia Williams was utterly brilliant as environmental minister who couldn’t balance her work and home life (and bullied her husband), but Anna Madeley spent the whole damned play crawling around dealing very unconvincingly with the “struggle” of bringing a being into a world that was going to collapse during the baby’s lifetime, and I didn’t care. All of those solid characters (well, not Anna Madeley’s), all wasted. It was the one time I’d seen the multiple story line thing really seeming to work, but Bartlett splorted it all away to get into a polemic (leading into a ridiculous fantasy world) that left my heart shrivelled.

My God, when will playwrights learn that a good play ultimately comes down to the relationships between the characters in it. You can use the platform to sell a point but if what’s going on between the people isn’t interesting, the pontificating is dull. Shaw managed to walk this tightrope generally quite well; Bartlett has unfortunately fallen prey to the David Hare syndrome: too in love with beating the audience about the head with his Really Important Point to make a Really Good Play. Me, if I want to read about climate change, all I have to do is pick up the paper any day of the week; it’s covered extensively in the news. I don’t go to the theater to hear this all over again: I go to learn about people and what makes them tick. At the end of the night, this focus on politics and news of the day has already hopelessly dated Earthquakes in London, making it stale even as the package is being opened. The fantastic staging is something I will remember for a long time; but the play itself, I’m afraid, will not, and for the talented cast and the teasing hints of an amazing storyline that was squashed flat in order to get a point across it’s all a damnable shame.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, August 2nd, 2010. It continues through September 22nd but appears to be totally sold out. For another point of view and much more detail on the plot, please see the West End Whinger’s review; a comprehensive listing of reviews from the majors can be found on UpTheWestEnd.com. Note that if you are very concerned about climate change you will probably find this a wonderful show LATER: Or so I thought when I wrote this: Robert Butler apparently did not!)

Mini-review – Blink Twice – Above the Stag

August 2, 2010

While I don’t usually bother with opening nights, the “version two” of last summer’s brilliant Blink! And You Missed It was a show I wanted to catch as soon as it opened. I like musicals more and more as time goes on, and the opportunity to see selected songs from shows that may never be revived could not be passed up. “Blink Twice” (title taken from “It’s a Business,” from the Kander and Ebb show Curtains) delivered everything but the Sondheim, with songs from musicals painful (Martin Guerre, “Live With Somebody You Love”), cultish (Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens’ tunefully brain-damaged “Glitter Boots Saved My Life,” as awful as I remembered, and an earnest song from Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, which I’d never heard of before), and almost-nearly-forgotten (Bad Girls). We had a chance to laugh at people’s arrogance (Moby Dick, seriously, how did that make it out of the … er, dock?), wonder at audience’s ignorance (Grand Hotel, seriously, why did it die?), and bust a gut laughing at some truly great songwriters’ brilliance. To this end, I recommend as the highlight of the show “Take It All Off,” from the presumably dead-and-buried Jerry’s Girls. I don’t wanna ruin the fun for you of it hitting you in the head like a lead filled glove, but afterwards I highly recommend you look for it on YouTube and watch the Israeli drag show version.

Overall, this was a good night out, a great value (as ever) at £14, and unmissable if you’re a hardcore musical theater nut. Really, if my biggest complaint was that the women need to all be wearing sheer-to-waist hose, you gotta realize I had to nitpick to find something that didn’t work for me. Go, enjoy, and come back here and tell me what new song is earwormed for you. For me, it’s “two trampolines would make one good brassiere …”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 29, 2010. It continues through August 22nd.)