Good news from BroadwayBox.com: there’s a deal on now for two for one tickets for Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hackney Empire (my review here). Hackney Empire is always one of the most affordable pantos in town, not to mention the best year after year, so a discount isn’t really necessary – but why not take advantage of it while you can? (The discount is only available through the site, so you will need to click the link to use it.)
Archive for November, 2010
Early this fall my friend Exedore (that’s his twitter handle, anyway) gave me a heart attack when he told me, in short, Christmas had been cancelled this year. That’s right, Clive Rowe was NOT gonig to be in the Hackney Empire panto – instead, he was going to be in The Three Musketeers. Massive OH NOES! My one major holiday tradition (since I moved to England) dashed! I felt like I should go, just to show my support of the struggling Hackney, but Clive is my Dream Dame … in my eyes, There Is Nothing Like a Clive; in his absence, so much panto is just hackneyed. But three weeks ago I got the good news: Clive was in, and Christmas was on! I signed up quickly for opening night tickets and eagerly awaited the show.
The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is … well, kind of different from the one I remember. As in many pantos, this one has a much bigger role for Jack’s mother, and (unsurprisingly) rather a long turn on stage for the cow. In addition, we get Jack’s best friends, Molly and Billy; two evil henchmen (the Beans, who fart and eat boogers and are generally revolting even without their green spotlight); and the most mysterious Mr. Snowmaaaaan, who appeared to be a Jamaican guy in a white afro wig and an equally terrifying fake fur coat. I was, again, pretty amazed at the complete lack of congruency with my expectations of the story, which was more about magic beans and giant’s gold and not a lot about fairies or who was in love with Jack.
Still, part of the fun for me is settling down into the familiar ride, with Susie McKenna tossing in topical jokes (the “demolition” government), reworkings of extremely familiar songs (“Easy Money” and even a song from Royal Wedding), and some fun dance numbers (I was shocked to see Mrs. Bean setting the floor on fire). Jack was a real star, both a talented dancer and a fine singer, though I was surpised somewhat that it was actually a guy in the role – still, I in no way felt short changed. The Billy/Molly bit was all rather long, though, and I found myself hoping that in later editions, Billy’s solo song might get cut – the loser male anti-hero in so many pantos (a la Buttons) isn’t my favorite element, and while he and Molly were big hams, they just didn’t enthuse me.
Clive, of course, was fantastic. His voice was as rich as ever, and his skill at ad-libbing got good use when Mr. Bean’s wig came off with his hat during the (inevitable) cream pie scene. Unfortunately, his Dame costumes weren’t as brilliant as in years past, even though they changed with every scene – there was just a certain simplicity and lack of whimsical detail that spoke of, I’m pretty sure, budget cuts. Still, the golden egg laying bird was better outfitted than anyone I saw at Wimbledon last year, and how often do you get to see a chicken tap dance?
Overall the second act, with its big musical numbers, was much more energetic than the first, but I enjoyed the entire evening. This wasn’t the best show I’ve seen them do, but I feel confident that with its street smarts, top-notch performers and well-written songs, once more Hackney will be the panto for the others to beat.
(This review is for the 7 PM performance on Saturday, Novemer 27th, 2010. The show continues through January 9th, 2011. Running time is approximately 2 1/2 hours based on my experience.)
Last Sunday I took advantage of the Metro‘s offer for half priced tickets and went to see La Soiree, a night of circus-style entertainment at a venue on the Southbank. I’d been to La Clique and loved it, and this was supposed to be the same thing-ish, only … well, mostly it seemed to be about the same lineup, but a different venue. This meant the return of balancing act The English Gents, sword-swallowing and latex-wearing Miss Behave, contortionist Captain Frodo, and the ever so yummy David O’Mer (notorious for the “bathtub” act).
The venue, however, was just gorgeous, a tent behind the National theater with a huge bar area (and very functional toilets) in the waiting area outside the main space, a second bar just the other side of the ticket takers, and then a glamorous mirrored “big top” area, with a circular stage surrounded 4/5ths by rows of chairs and this area rounded by a walkway with cozy little booths (probably big enough for six or even eight) all along the sides. There was also a space sort of at the “top” of the stage (furthest away from the bar entrance/exit) where there was a raised platform and then, on the level behind it more or less level with the booths, another little stage.
To my disappointment, the Sunday incarnation of La Soiree featured rather too much of my least favorite acts, the drag puppet mime “Cabaret Decadanse” (I think they were on three times) and Captain Frodo (who actually wholly repeated his show from before – the routine with the tennis rackets and then the one with the balancing buckets). The puppet singers I find boring, and Captain Frodo is just kind of gross and unsexy and has a stage presence that makes me … I don’t know, wish for it to be over. Goofy is just not what I come to La Soiree for.
However, we did get some magnificent balancing work from the English Gents, who were just as dapper (and ultra yummy outside of their pinstriped suits, and – even better – in a kimono!) as ever, and displayed the wit I remembered them for from my visit to La Clique. The audience was laughing and oohing and aahing and I felt very lucky to get to see them again.
My companion’s favorite act was “Mooky,” a curvaceous blonde who sort of put herself out as a bit of a stand-up, audience participation comedian. I don’t want to give away any of her act but we were all but falling out of our chairs. Once again, it was a rather thoughtful performance, rather than just being crass or comptetent-while-boring. I didn’t really buy into her stage persona but at the end I was sold by what she accomplished.
Rather more on the freak side was the “Spanish” singer and dancer (who’s stage name I’ve forgotten despite it being written inside his cape), who wound up at one point playing guitar ping-pong with the audience and then, later, juggling eggs – again, with members of the audience. This also had us on the edge of our seats, more or less with terror, but hey, we were certainly paying attention as things went flying every which way.
What’s sad, at the end of the day, is seeing just how many acts could have been performing – the really sexy Ursula Martinez (where did that hanky go?), people on roller skates, my beloved Miss Behave, and the rather enticing looking Le Gateau Chocolat (a “killer baritone” with “a penchant for being wrapped in body hugging lycra” per the program). There was really so much more we could have seen! Still, despite my whinges, my friend and I had an excellent time (aided by the liberal application of vodka), and my feeling, as I left, was much like it was for La Clique: I had really had such a good time and wanted to come back as soon as possible with as many friends of mine as I could get together, and then sit around, slug back drinks, and have a wonderful, sexy, clever, pulse-raising night out. La Soiree was great fun and if you like the things I like, this is a perfect evening to chase the winter blues away.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, November 14th, 2010.
“Days Out,” which promotes travel by train, has a two for one offer for tickets for the Nutcracker. Sadly this offer is only good December 29th and 30th but I consider it a great deal when all of the pantos will be full priced this week! You need to prebook (call the box office 0871 472 0800 and quote “2FOR1 National Rail offer”) and they say you’ll have to present your train tickets but Oyster usually works as well …
I have a complicated relationship with Wayne McGregor, but I won’t document it here: these days, what matters is my friend Wechsler likes him, and I like going out to dance shows with him, so we were absolutely going to see FAR, his latest show currently on (and sold out) at Sadler’s Wells. After my dismal failure to get “Entity,” I forked over for a program, and was given these ideas to muse upon: FAR is short for “Flesh in the Age of Reason,” the title of an Enlightenment era book exploring the relationship of the body to the soul.
This was a thought that sparked my brain off, and, as the curtains came up, I was greeted by four dancers bearing torches with a couple between them, dancing to music by Vivaldi (I think). I imagined the formal music capturing the highly structured society of that era, which the dancers’ bodies represented; controlled bodies, and controlled minds. Only … that control cannot continue, for the mind and the body do not always accept the control put on them. Thus the torchees fading into darkness, thus the dancers disappearing … bringing us into a strange world, perhaps today, marked by a brilliant burst of white flickering lights from the illuminated sculptural entity at the back of the stage.
At this point … well … what am I supposed to say about the dancing that is not just a blow by blow? I’ve changed how I’m spending my time at dance performances now because I spent too much time thinking about what I would say when I was watching the dance (and taking notes) and not enough time watching and experiencing it; this composing and writing was causing me to be unable to get fully into what was going on. There was the same gawky movements as I’ve seen before with McGregor, but now, when I saw them, my mind obsessed on a note in the program in which he talks about “the distorted body,” wondering if when I saw a position that looked unnatural, if I was assuming the dancer was hurt or expressing mental trauma. So I focused on these movements, occasionally flipping to thoughts like “they all look like they’re wearing American Apparel” to “is that reallly supposed to be rape or is that just how I’m reading it” to “I wonder if that big light box causes epileptic fits.” I also yawned a lot and just had a very hard time focusing on what was happening (not helped by having a rather big head in front of me – oh the curse of getting side seats due to faffing about buying tickets). At the end, finally, we had a clear death on the stage, and the light board seemed to be showing the last shimmer of neural synapses as a human’s light goes out – the brain continues to fire for a while – but then less and less – and then the light goes well and truly out.
My overall impression is that the piece seemed to show a lot about how we fight against our exterior programming, and that its our bodies’ desires that overtake the attempts at hardwiring and control that are externally imposed on us. I also thought the group scenes flowed much better than a lot of things McGregor has done in the last two years (i.e. the very yawny “Dyad 1909“) and there was certainly less grotesquerie just for the sake; but I wasn’t really able to grab a narrative. Still, it was a beautifully realized piece in terms of the other production elements, and while I’m not sold on the dancing, I did think it was worth seeing a second time to reflect upon it when my own mind wasn’t fighting so hard at being where it was. And I thought briefly, at the end, maybe I was right when I thought that McGregor was the most likey inheritor of Merce Cunningham’s crown; he’s certainly trying to make something that is so much richer than just a bit of pretty people doing pretty movement in pretty dresses – though I think I might not have minded just a bit more pretty on this evening.
And before I close, Ismene Brown reminds me: once again, Sadler’s Wells has produced a work that literally hurt my ears. This is one of two main complaints I have as an audience member about the venue. They must have a better concern for their audience than to abuse us with overly amplified noise. My other fuss is that they leave the front doors open so that the smoke from in front is blown all the way in as far as the bar; it’s just intolerable and they should institute a complete smoking ban along the entire Rosebury side entrance OR keep the doors shut. But it’s the noise that really bothers me; I should not have to bring earplugs with me when I go to see dance.
(This review is for a world premiere performance that took place on Wednesday, November 17th, 2010. FAR continues through November 20th, and if you wish to see it, please don’t despair at its sold-outtedness – daily tickets are often announced on the Sadlers’ Wells twitter feed, and you can pretty much guarantee there will be just a few returned every single night before the show that won’t make it onto the website. Be persistent!)
It seems these days print critics are all about slamming the bloggers. Two years ago, the questions was merely “are we going to replace print media” (per Jay Rayner); nowadays it’s shocking rudeness, from being called, basically, scroungers looking to get a few free show tickets (see Mark Shenton) to sad people with dull lives and reduced capacity for enjoyment (Tim Hayward) to, most insultingly, untrustworthy clowns with no integrity (Bella Todd in a moment of gutter wallowing).
As someone who’s been happily blogging away about all and sundry for about a decade (my first post was a restaurant review), I’m surprised at the rise of vitriol from the tiny cadre of paid authors. They’re already in a position of privilege, given that they pay nothing for the things they review and have no pesky day job getting in the way of their craft; they have editors and (sometimes) fact checkers helping them look their best; while we’re busily making our ticket budget balance with our gas and electric bill, they saunter into a show on opening night – when everything is supposed to be at its very best – knowing they’ve got a free ticket waiting for them in a special envelope. For them to be snide to us seems ridiculous given that they have so many advantages where we only have devotion.
So, really, why the bad attitude about hobbyists? I think the tide has turned, in part, out of a sense of fear. Bella Todd said we can’t be trusted because we don’t have a name publication behind us; but, increasingly, the total number of writers that do is on the wane. This flood of vanished paid positions is not the fault of bloggers, but rather due to the rise of the internet and instant access to free information online. Print writers’ snippy, superiority-stained remarks seem to come in part from a fear of bloggers; but the decimation of reviewerships is all about upheavals in the print industry. I want to keep reading writers that have been in the trenches for decades, but my ceasing to write is not going to keep them employed.
However, I think the question that ought to be asked is why are so many people coming to blogs for reviews? We do have the advantage of being fast; we’re not limited by “don’t publish until opening” rules, and our format lets us get reviews out there the night we see a show (provided we’re willing to forgo some sleep). I argue, however, our real value is because we are, inherently, trustworthy. Despite Todd’s claims, the fact is I earn my trust, and my reputation, one reader at a time, and the sign of their trust is that they return to read me again. Because we aren’t obliged to keep our “nice” relationships with the theaters, we are far freer to say what we think than print reviewers are – God knows theatrical staff and even art principles feel no reason to refrain from being rude to us, since we’re merely “members of the public ” – and our descriptions of our painful (sometimes literally) experiences much more closely represent that of a normal person going to a show (provided that the “normal person” is just a wee bit fanatical about the medium – two shows a week is not normal by almost any standard, and I usually see three).
I think this focus on the reality of regular people’s experience of shows (or movies, or meals) is why people look for bloggers’ reviews in the first place, because often we are the only ones who feel free to speak the truth without fear of offense. After all, since (for most of us) every show we see is paid for out of our meager pockets, theatrical producers have already got what they really want out of us – our cold, hard cash. And it is paying that cash, and then having to debate the value we’ve received in exchange for our money earned at our frequently dull (or even soul-crushing) day jobs, that takes away those rose-colored glasses too many paid reviewers see weak shows through. We aren’t professionals, but why do people turn to us when there are other people out there with better-expressed views? It really comes down to integrity. I write for love, and to try to learn to become a better writer by “doing” my craft – not because I had a deadline to meet to fill column inches; if you read me, you do so most likely because you want to figure out if you should see a show – and you trust what I have to say. Thank you for this trust; I hope I deserve it, and that you return to read me again; and that, if we disagree, we can discuss it like people who both understand that different viewpoints do not mean that there is a right and a wrong, but that there are merely two different experiences that we can both learn from by sharing our opinions. And that’s one of the things I love the most about theater; it gives me so much to talk about and so many people to discuss with and learn from.
As a final note, without the benefit of an editor to review our work, errors are far more likely to slip into our writings. Proper netiquette teaches the best way to handle these slips is to send a private email to the author enabling to correct their mistake “behind the scenes” rather than posting something publicly. They will appreciate the tact and the “editor” will earn a reputation for being sharp-eyed rather than pedantic. I’m not naming names here, but the guilty party ought to see the error of their ways and amend and apologise for using such a broad platform to mock a rather inoffensive party – to fire at a blogger with an elephant gun makes the shooter seem insecure and petty and does affect your online reputation.
(Another nice discussion of this can be found on Laura Tosney’s blog – have a look!)
Tonight I went, once again, to the Linbury for the current installment of the Royal Opera House “Firsts” program. First up was a bizarre projection/rope acrobatics piece, with a through-line (told primarily through a narrated movie) about Frank, a clown in a circus in India. There was a lot of discussion about how the circus is received in India, and a bit about the backstage shenanigans – but it all rang kind of false, like a “This American Life” story brought to life (not helped by the rather flat and very American narration). The projections, which were a movie (at times) and ambient lights (emphasizing the movement of the rope artist) were … well, the good part was when three projected, computer-looped dogs had clowns appear behind them and their faces sort of … melt. It was something that could really only have been done with the technology. However, there was no real dramatic tension, the ropework was flat, and the final image of the clown/rope artist spinning around on top of three plastic children’s play horses didn’t move me. I’d say this wasn’t awful but it was certainly not very exciting.
Next up (after a really unnecessary intermission) was Spiltmilk “Say Dance,” the most obvious audience-pleaser of the night. Spiltmilk Dance took a variety of social dance crazes and turned them, intelligently, on their heads: so we saw “The Twist” done as if each of the three dancers was being, in turn and together, in bits and full bodied, possessed by the spirit of Chubby “St. Vitus” Checker; later we had the joy of the “Birdie” dance, the “Time Warp” and the “YMCA” done to “Eine Kleine NachtMusic.” I haven’t seen a piece so cheefully self-conscious and engaged with the vernacular dance idiom since the Buttrock Suites back in Seattle-land. Oh, the mimed “fox trot” with the pointy ears and the bouncing up and down! I enjoyed this work greatly and am most pleased with these ladies for sticking a big fat ray of sunshine right in the middle of a cold November night. Thanks so much!
Suffering by comparison (as well as proximity to so much joy) was “That Was the Time I Stopped,” a.k.a. the one with the blue spangled hotpants. Two women ran side by side across stage, tussled on the floor, balanced on each other, peeked at each other sideways, readjusted their clothing, and generally filled time in a way that I found not compelling and not too full of narrative. And then it was time for the interval – though considering I wasn’t aching with the desire to leave my seat, this certainly wasn’t the worst of pieces that’s made it into curation for this show.
Last up was “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” a semi-puppet show with an old man (the puppet) wandering around a room full of boxes, listening to the radio, which goes between the shipping weather report, sports, and … well, other things. Two men are packing up the boxes behind him, until … well, the old man appears to be transported back into the time when he worked on a ship, and the men become other sailors. The show continues with him slipping back between the past and the present (which moves from him being moved to him being in a hospital), leaving us with a sense of sadness for the joy (and terror) of life on the ocean. It wasn’t the strongest puppet show I’ve ever seen (you’ll note I’ve been to many, so the bar is high), but it was a very good addition to the evening. Overall, this selection was well chosen and I’m pleased I was able to see it – and am looking forward to the final installment on Friday!
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tueday, November 16th, 2010. This program will be repeated on Wednesday night. The third and final installment takes place on Friday and Saturday, November 19th and 20th – and at £5 a ticket, it’s not to be missed.)
Official ROH Program description
THE SUGAR BEAST CIRCUS
A performance inspired by holy men and Hollywood – an autobiographical fantasy capturing performers’ memories of life on the road with an Indian circus. The piece fuses physical theatre and unique and elegant aerial work with animation and projection to create a strange reality. Milkwood Rodeo was developed with the support of The Roundhouse and Arts Council England.
SPILTMILK SAY DANCE
Performed by the award-winning Spiltmilk Dance company who use their distinctively quirky style to put a new spin on popular social dance crazes of the 20th century. Dance phenomena such as The Twist, Disco and Ballroom are re-imagined to create a completely new dance experience.
THAT WAS THE TIME I STOPPED
AMY BELL AND VALENTINA GOLFIERI
Surreal flights of fancy, fears and hallucinations are spliced together by two enigmatic figures to create a makeshift sense of reality. This is darkly humorous dance in stop-frame.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE
The Man Who Wasn’t There is a glimpse into the life of ‘Albert’ – a man whose memories are fragmented and who is becoming increasingly drawn into a world of senile confusion. Albert’s stories are told through a unique blend of puppetry and circus by London based company Genius Sweatshop. Genius Sweatshop has been gratefully supported by Crying Out Loud, La Breche (Normandy), The Blue Elephant Theatre, Ideas Tap and countless individuals.
You know what’s great about a liberal arts education? While you never learn anything particularly useful, you’ll often find you’ve learned things that make you enjoy life more. Me, I left college without having read a word of Austen, the Brontes, or Nancy Mitford (the horror!), yet I was well versed in Japanese literature. That meant the peaceful purity of Kawabata, the freak show that is Mishima, and … Tanizaki. His Makioka Sisters was one of my favorite novels, but his dark analysis of the human psyche came out much better in his short stories. I know I read his Seven Japanese Tales back in the day, but by the time 2010 rolled around, I’d completely forgotten about “A Portrait of Shunkin,” the story of a blind shamisen player and her servant/student adapted by Complicite for their current show at the Barbican (“Shun-kin”). It’s closing tonight and I wouldn’t normally spend time writing a review up this late in the game, but I loved it so much I want to make a final effort to alert anyone who might enjoy this show about what a truly stupendous work of theater it is.
First, the show is almost entirely done in Japanese. The subtitles on the sides of the stage were occasionally distracting because they required me to be constantly flicking my attention to them, causing me to miss what was happening on stage; however, this was a minor flaw. Second, while this looks like a puppet show, in fact, it’s a show in which one of the characters is occasionally portrayed by a puppet, while the other characters are all done by actual actors. Third, this show really digs into some twisted realms of the human psyche. The lightest of these moments is the bit with puppet sex (which I’ve seen before but its execution was stupendous, with the arms and legs of the puppet floating above the stage); but what it illustrates is extreme dependence, denial, and abuse. Child abandonment, attempted rape, the physical mutilation of other and self … really, it’s all quite intense and hair raising (or stomach clenching). My companion was almost speechless at the end of the night.
But what it’s all about to me is the two things I love to see most on a stage: a fantastic story and its delivery with the barest of elements (sticks, kimono, a teapot), in this case in what I see as the Peter Brook style. Shunkin’s servant, Sasuke, is portrayed both as his young self and simultaneously as his old self, remembering what happened, while a third person experiences the servant’s story as he reads it in a book; a live Shamisen player is Shunkin’s teacher but then the music of Shunkin and the music played by her servant (the music plays endlessly and adds a wonderful texture to the show). Tatami mats fly around the stage to arrange themselves as the various interiors; people hold and move poles to show doors opening and closing and walls forming (and disappearing) around the actors as they move through the space. I didn’t care for the use of projections: the fluttering pieces of paper used to show birds was more effective than the animations of them on the wall; but again, this is a quibble. Similarly I didn’t care for the framing device of the woman narrating this story in modern Japan; being snapped back to this element at the end of the story, when I just wanted to bend over and cry at the brokenness of Shunkin and Sasuke and my own inevitable death, was just too harsh and unnecessary. We ended with a whimper after the bang; but oh, such a beautiful, sad bang, with the actors holding poles draped over the quiet form of Shunkin, creating perfectly the feeling of a pine tree on the side of a hill, sheltering and hiding what she and Sasuke left on earth, and leaving us with a feeling of a sadness that lasted beyond lifetimes.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 12th, 2010. There are two final performances of Shunkin at the Barbican today, November 13th.)
Bright Lights, Big City wis a classic novel of 1980s life – a life that utterly passed me by (as I was making my way through high school and then college) – that’s often been compared to The Great Gatsby in terms of skilfully catching the energy of its era (and the whole “lost youth” vibe). I, however, have never read Jay McInerney’s novel, but I was eager to take the opportunity to see the musical that had been made from it when an offer for press tickets appeared in my inbox. I like new musicals and I had no corrupting vision of “that was/wasn’t in the book” to affect my enjoyment, so I bounced, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, over to … er, was it really being held in Hoxton? Oh well, it was close to work, so there I went (be advised walking from Old Street is a completely reasonable option and taking the bus from this tube stop is a waste of time versus travelling on foot).
Before I get into the show, I want to talk a bit about Hoxton Hall, the venue. It is, in a word, charming, basically all of the promise of Wilton’s Music Hall come to life, with gorgeous wrought-iron balconies and great ceiling detail. However, the floor is completely flat, and for this reason you might want to be careful of where you sit. My position, in the front row, actually suffered from not being far enough from the stage and forcing me to look at things from a strange angle – though I’m guessing the set was built up enough audience members further back were able to see things well enough. However, I have a sneaking suspicion the balcony seats might actually be preferable – but as there was no interval I wasn’t able to test my theory.
The play is a week in the life of Jamie (Paul Ayres), a youngish guy not far out of college with a fairly uninspiring job ding “factual verification” for Gotham Magazine. It’s the kind of job I fought for when I moved to the East Coast in ’95, but Jamie finds it a huge drag and isn’t able to commit to it. His life really only seems alive when he’s at the nightclubs, where he and the other many denizens of the play dance, snort coke, and do their best to hook up with each other (much facilitated by the blow). This is the environment that provides most of the memorable moments of the play, both textually (references to “Dran-o for the brain-o” coe to mind) and musically. I think in particular of “Odeon,” with the immortal lines “It’s snowing in the bathroom!” and the impressive subtlety of “I wanna have sex tonight!” The cast went pretty wild for these numbers and really filled the space with energy and an 80s trashiness that made me kind of nostalgic for whatever it was I missed by being responsible and making sure I was ready to work instead of going out and partying it up every night.
Unsurprisingly, I had an inability to sympathize with Jamie’s situation. His marriage had fallen apart; he has unresolved grief issues about his mom; he is in danger of losing his job; he blows off his brother. Paul Ayres had such a realistic hang-dog look about him that he could in no way convince me that Jamie was really just a misunderstood, struggling genius; to me, he seemed like a lazy, self-pitying jerk whom his wife Amanda (Rachael Wooding, great legs and a pleasure to watch dance) was lucky to escape from. In fact, the pair of them were so shallow I found them rather despicable; even the scenes of Jamie with his mom didn’t move me. So while I liked the vibrancy of this show and the fact it was sung through, overall it left me untouched; the songs, while scandalous and shocking at times, didn’t have the musicality I prefer. Still, if you enjoy the “rock” style musical a la Spring Awakening or have a soft spot for the book, you’ll probably find this a good night out and the trek to Hoxton worth your time.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Tueday, November 9th, 2010. Bright Lights, Big City continues through November 25th at Hoxton Hall.)
While I didn’t know much about Fela Anikulapo-Kuti before going to last night’s preview performance at the National Theatre, I did know enough to be excited that this show was coming to London. It had been well received in New York – going from the 37 Arts theater (September 2008) to the Eugene O’Neill (November 2009) – and is still carrying on (though box office has slowed since the principles decamped to, er, England). And while I’m not any kind of expert on Fela’s music, I’d heard lots of it thanks to years of listening to the Best Ambiance show on KEXP. My tiny mental biography – African singer who’d paid a heavy price for his very political music – made me think that hearing his life story would make for a good night at the theater. When member presale started at the NT, I went ahead and grabbed a single seat for this show (on the night some friends were going), figuring this would be enough of an event to reward me for the grief of attending essentially alone: theater is an social activity for me, an evening to share with others, but if this was the best I could manage for a show that sounded so good, I was not going to say no: later in the run I wouldn’t even be able to afford a seat.
I entered into an Olivier theater that had been transformed in the most attractive way (credits to Marina Draghici, I’m sure) a real “environment” – so different from the many times it had just been an overly large box with a set dropped on top. We were in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1978, for what was to be Fela’s last concert at his Shrine music hall. The walls were covered with posters of people from the black power movement; Yoruba statues; banners with political slogans; and a hovering image of Fela’s mom, Funmilayo Anikulapo-Kuti. The stage had an extension poking into the audience so most of the first two rows were “inside” of an arc upon which people would later dance, run, and (I would gueess) leave them fearing for their lives. Me, I was in the last “normal” row, P, sat in front of row R, which was half-full of people with notebooks. The technical staff; well, it was a preview, so not unexpected.
I did not expect that this situation would wind up ruining my night out. For the first twenty minutes, the lot of them kept up conversations in what I would consider an “outside” voice – not whispers, but full volume conversations about every damned thing happening on stage as if they were still in a rehearsal with nary a paying customer in sight. (Be advised my preview ticket was £30, so it’s not like I was there for a giveaway.) Listening to the lyrics of Fela’s music, as well as to the speeches he (as represented by Sahr Gnaujah) gave, was critical to understanding this show: and the grammar, syntax, and rythmns of the English used were very non-standard and required a lot of attention to get at the 100% I wanted. Even though the lyrics were displayed on a screen at the back of the set, the endless chatter was successfully cancelling out a lot of the words. I finally turned to my left and asked if the pair of men could please keep it down: they said, “Ooh, sorry!” and immediately dropped the level. (I later foudn this was the projection team, likely Peter Nigrini and another.)
However, an hour went by and the three women to my right and rear did NOT quiet down and were, basically, treating me to the pleasure of listening to them work through their notes ALL THE WAY THROUGH THE SHOW where was I was hoping to do was actually pay attention to what was happening on stage. There was a lot going on: fantastic music; wild dancing (although I felt some of the women looked more like they were doing choreographed moves rather than the improv that I am used to seeing in African dance, especially when in a dancer/drummer situation); a story that made Hair look like a light comedy for theater-goers expecting a wee bit of naughty to go with hummable tunes. I finally gave up on anyone else and asked, “Can you please talk more quietly?”
The response of one of the three women, sneering: “I am working.”
Oh my, oh me, did I INTERRUPT someone who was WORKING during a show? Did I, as a person who had PAID to come to a show, want to enjoy my experience? Was it RUDE for me to ask for her to conduct her conversation as if there was an AUDIENCE in the room? Had I asked her to do something she was physically incabable of doing?
Or was she just incredibly rude with an inflated sense of self importance and a complete lack of perspective on what constitutes proper behavior in a theater, or, possibly, around human beings?
At the interval I tried to get the name of this paragon of good technical staff: supposedly it was Anna Rotherburger (spelling uncertain), though I could not find her on the cast list. She was sitting next to Marina Draghici herself – I was able to find a picture of her online and she attempted to soothe me as I asked the sneering woman to identify herself, and it was Marina who said her name was what I’ve written here. Possibly it was actually Deputy Stage Manager Anna Hil or Deputy Producction Manager Anna Anderson, though I’m loathe to blame an innocent party: she spoke with an English accent. Whoever she is, she should be banished to a light booth and permanently banned from being present at any performance at which the public is in attendance. I think she should be horsewhipped for rudeness. Deliver her unto me and I’ll make sure she gets what she deserves. Seriously, it’s bad enough to go to performances with rude audience members, who will usually respond when asked to keep it down; but for a professional staff member to be so incredibly hostile to a polite request to conduct her work sotto voce is just beyond the pale. She ruined the show for me and made the National look bad. Anna, whoever you are, you owe me an apology, and you need to go to a basic manners class.
Now, house manager Steve responded to this by moving me to row G; but my socialization opportunity over the interval was ruined, as had been the entire first act. And, really, I wasn’t able to get my brain in the right space for act two either. I want to say something about the show, because I thought it was really good. I was very interested in how Fela moved from basically a fanboy musician with a taste for the ladies to a man who was fearless in discussing the corrupt state of his nation publicly, as entertainment, speaking the truth to the people; the section on his exposure to American culture and the Black Power movement was especially enlightening (and gave his life some visceral historic context). I was really sucked up into the “dream ballet,” when he attempted to summon and then talk to his mother’s spirit amidst a swirl of glowing white costumes and masks with faces that touched upon deep terrors.
But what really hit me about this musical about a pot-smoking, skirt-chasing singer and sax player wasn’t his unadmirable lifestyle (who knows if it were played up or down on stage!), it was just how much what he was doing mattered. I have to go back to Hair to make the comparison properly. Hair, to me, was a pretty show with pretty songs about pretty, selfish kids who just hated that people wanted them to “fit in” instead of wear funny clothes and abandon social standards of personal hygiene. Their punishment: few possessions; getting kicked out of the house; unexpected parenthood; bad trips. Fela! is about a people who wanted to live in safety, to have food for their families, to have access to clean water, to see the money washing around the country turned to do something for the people of the country instead of just going to the army and the politicians. Their punishment: rape (both genders); torture; imprisonment on false charges; murder (made most clear by the movies shown on the sides of the stage). Standing up the the government meant you could be pulled into prison without cause: your house could be burnt down; your extended family glassed, gassed, violated, and murdered by police forces. It’s a really different world from the pretty, safe New York of 1966: and it’s the same world that’s out there right now while we sit around worring that we might have our cell phone picked from our pockets or that British Gas might overcharge us for our heating bills. Fela put his life – and his family – on the line shining a light on the horrible truth of daily existence in Nigeria; he made music that people could dance to and enjoy because, well, it “had a beat and you could dance to it” but also, I think, that had the incredible power of saying, in no unclear terms, what was going on in his country. Like the Trickster, he yanked the beard of authority, and authority damn well yanked right back, and he paid a price, though not as much as some.
This feeling of relevance to now is what charges this musical with so much power. We all still live in a world where the gap between first world and third world living can be expressed just as much in justice as it can be in money. The privileges we enjoy are far deeper than easy access to clothing and clean water; the shame is that it is more than 30 years later and the situation for so many people is still so poor. Governments around the world still work hard to shut down those who speak the truth to power; the fact that even one man could do so for so long is both inspiring and chastening. Surely we should demand more. And somewhere, somehow, we need another Fela.
AHEM. Yes, anyway: I enjoyed this show, and I think it’s one of the most energizing things to hit the National in the last six years.
(This review is for a preview performance that took lace on November 9th, 2010. Official opening night is January 16th, but with the New York star, Sahr Ngaujah in place, there’s no need to wait for fussy technical details to get ironed to perfection before you go see this show – provided you don’t sit in row P of the stalls.)