Archive for December, 2010

Review – Dick Whittington and his Cat – Lyric Hammersmith

December 31, 2010

I was a bit stuck for panto options in the Boxing Day – New Year’s break this year. Originally I was supposed to be in Inverness, and was going to see the Eden Theater’s production, but the travel chaos threw my plans topsy-turvy and suddenly I was in London with nary a ticket bought! The problem wasn’t so much not being able to get tickets as not being able to decide where. I’d already been to see my perennial favorite, the Hackney Empire (with Jack and the Beanstalk), but no other show had really caught any buzz other than, “Look away!” However, inspiration came from an article in the Guardian, which suggested that the OTHER good panto to see in London was at the Lyric Hammersmith. Well, okay, I thought (noting that next year I need to make a trip to York), let’s see what they’ve got going on; as usual they had good prices (unlike Wimbledon or the non-panto Hansel and Gretel the Southbank Center did), and thus for 15 pounds a head I found myself in the second balcony for some post-Christmas panto fun.

The Lyric’s promotional material for Dick Whittington seemed to emphasize its “street” aspects; the poster was for a cat in a baseball cap wearing a gold necklace. I was actually expecting the whole production to have a lot more elements from this culture (very vibrant in London and source of a lot of the most exciting dance productions), but they really weren’t there. It was a shame, too; the music and dancing were some of the weakest elements of this production.

However, the casting was very good. The Cat, Paul J Medford, was full of personality and a big ham; he was definitely the star of the show despite having to do it all in a giant furry suit. Steven Webb was shockingly good in a role that should have had me sick with its sugariness; how could he be so positive about everything and not just come off like … he was playing down to us? In fact, he was a treat; a good singing voice, a nearly irony-free delivery, and somehow he managed to “live the role” in a way that sold to a hardened old nut like myself. Good on you, Steve. Alice (Rosalind James), however, put both of the men to shame with her stupendous pipes; she was fine as the spunky pie-maker’s daughter, but she blew the roof off when she sang.

Unfortunately, Shaun Prendergast (as Sarah the Cook) just wasn’t the over the top scene stealer I was hoping for. He seemed a very friendly panto dame, but I really want someone who’s a demon wit as well as having a powerful stage presence. He also didn’t get as many fun dresses as I was hoping for. Still, I’ve been spoiled by Clive Rowe; Prendergast did show that he’d worked to adapt the material as he went along, but he just couldn’t match Rowe’s verbal fireworks.

While this show was definitely competent, I felt it was lacking some snap and pizazz … maybe just a bit more fun between the characters onstage would have helped. That said, it certainly got in plenty of bad puns (especially with the bells, unusual characters to say the least), and I do think it was pitched pretty well at its audience. Still, better miking so the lyrics of the songs could be heard would have helped – I couldn’t tell what they were going on about once the music started – and, well, I don’t know, I guess it is pretty late in the run and a two show day but I would have enjoyed a little more life in the actors. So it was certainly a serviceable panto, but not one I’m likely to remember longer than the end of this Christmas season.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Wednesday, December 29th, 2010. It continues through January 8th, 2011.)

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Review – The (Original) Nutcracker – Butterfly Wheels at Pentameters Theatre

December 28, 2010

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve seen this show, and while I wasn’t going to review it, I realized, as time has gone on (and this has turned to the month I saw three Nutcrackers) that I really need to document what I saw, especially after reading Luke Murphy’s writeup. Just to be clear, this show was paid for: I’d received an offer for review tickets and turned it down (already booked), but when a Friday night held open for the Hackney Empire’s Jack and the Beanstalk stayed open after I decided to see it on opening night (and Peter Pan in Wimbledon got trashed, saving me an expensive ticket), I found myself going with a friend to this show, which was early enough (7 PM) to leave time for all sorts of other shenanigans.

The production was billed as 1) very little ballet 2) with projected films “that allow the story to flow from one fantasy to another” 3) that “stays true to the original novelette.” I am a fan of art that crosses disciplines and I’ve seen this story done as a ballet enough that I was quite ready to see a show that dealt with the “original” story. My friend and I thus found ourselves creeping up the stairs of the tiny Pentameters Theater at 6:50 on a Friday night, greeted (as we walked through the curtain into what looked like a sixty seat house) with a gingerbread cookie. Only about 15 people were in the room, most of us huddled against the back wall on cushioned chairs. I saw, as I ran my eyes over the rather elaborate set (certainly a budget buster for such a small space), that actors dressed as dolls were jammed into a shelf behind the bed of a girl’s room; I saw Harlequin, Columbine, Pierrot, and Punch and Judy. Ooh, what a treat, what were they going to do?

As it turns out, the dolls were, in my mind, the highlight of this production. I was put off at the beginning by Clara’s (Lauren Munisany) apparent pregnancy; a knocked-up “girl on the edge of womanhood” could certainly be an element of this story but it did just change the feel a lot. It turned out that this was just a very large bow under her night dress, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of Clara being a nymphette. The dissonance was not helped by her painful false German accent; it’s possible that better dialogue would have pulled me into the story more (the script should have been shot in the stable), but every time she opened her mouth, I just … had a bit of an out of body experience, reminding myself that the show was only going to be an hour long and there was still hope for salvaging the evening.

There were actually many things I enjoyed about this show. First, the emphasis on Drosselmeier as an inventor was great, and the clockwork castle scene was a wonderful addition to the normal execution of this story; and the strobe lit battle between the mice and the Nutcracker was an awesome bit of theater, with the glowing lights of the mice’s eyes making their heads appear to float around separated from their bodies. It was genuinely creepy and much more frightening than the usual comedy Nutcracker mice. And the telling of the story of how the Nutcracker came to be – he is a real man under an enchantment – filled a gap that I’d never pushed to hard to understand before.

However, these elements had to compete with even more things that I found unbearable. The Mouse King, who at one point appears to be doing karaoke, was unintelligible despite having rather a lot of dialogue. The promised movies utterly broke the flow of the story, were poorly done, and should have been abandoned. Clara’s tiny attempts at toe work should also have been jettisoned, and the rock music felt completely unnatural with the pseudo-classic setting. The dolls were fabulous and creepy, with sinuous movements that made me think of J.F. Sebastian’s toys in Blade Runner, but plopped in the rest of the production I wound up feeling like I’d somehow been transported to Kate Bush’s Christmas acid trip.

Sadly enough, this show seemed like it was bursting full of possibility but then took all of it and threw it out the window. It was really one of the worst things I’ve seen all year – admittedly, I didn’t walk out (I would have had to have crossed the stage to do so, and I kept reminding myself that it was only an hour long), but in its waste of the good elements it had, I think it’s going to probably count as the single most painful thing I saw in all of 2010. Thank God for the gingerbread cookies or I’d have absolutely nothing to console myself for the time I spent watching this misbegotten piece of theater.

(This review is for a show seen on Friday, December 17th, 2010. The show continues until January 9th, 2011. By the way, the doll girls are actually really hot: if this was a rave, the night would have been a raging success I babbled on about for years.)

Review – Anansi, an African Fairy Tale – Southwark Playhouse

December 23, 2010

I love fairy tales and I’m a fan of Anansi, even before Neil Gaiman came up with his take on the story. Anansi, a spider god in the folklore of Africa, is a trickster god much like Loki and Coyote. His stories are fun to read because they often end with some creature with a much bigger ego getting his come-uppance. So I was game to see what the Southwark Playhouse was doing with their Christmas “anti-Panto,” Anansi, an African Fairy Tale. It seemed in keeping with the general level of London Christmas theater fare, that it would be a fairy tale, but I expected it would NOT involve people dressed as horses or a sing-a-long, and this was fine.

What it was was five people, two men and three women, doing a few of the Anansi tales strung together into a whole, that being “the three deeds Anansi (Anniwaa Buachie) agreed to do so that the Sky-God would release the ‘stories’ to people.” This was obviously a trope to get some of the standard Anansi tales within a story line. However, the meta-story was too complex: while one bit was the “three deeds,” there was also a bit about Anansi’s best friend looking for a husband and having to go through a series of potential husbands to see which one was right for her. This formed the bulk of the first tale, as Anansi’s friend (Vanessa Sampson) wound up picking a disguised snake, “Vipro” (Toussaint Meghie) as a potential mate: he though she was “tasty” but not in the right way. Anansi, of course, helped save her, which seemed like a great way to move on into more major stories; but instead we got caught up with fiddling around to capture various creatures as required by the Sky God, and then more boyfriends came up. I was sorry that the playwright hadn’t stuck with three or four major stories instead of watering it down. At the end, though, came the kicker: the lesson Anansi learned after trapping bees, a panther, and a fairy so that he could deliver them to the Sky God was that they probably would have come if he’d just asked. Is this the Trickster God? No, I think not: tricksters have no regret. This seemed to be some weird English add-on for the kiddies and utterly foreign to the character of Anansi. Boo on the tacked on ending!

The actors were, I thought, generally good and full of talent but hampered by a weak script and rather dull songs. Still, it felt much better than last year’s horrible Nation, and I felt it actually had a lot going for it that made it more of a pure distillation of African culture than Fela (which seemed just too full of itself). The actors were also, I believe, struggling with a 3/4 empty house. However, seen as a play mostly done for kids, this was a fine show that could take them along for the ride; and for adults, it wasn’t too bad. Still, it’s not something I’d consider a must-see without quite a bit of editing to the script.

(This review is for a performance seen on Monday, December 13th, 2010. It continues through January 8th, 2011. For another view, please see A Younger Theatre.)

Review – Hansel and Gretel – Kneehigh Theatre at Queen Elizabeth Hall

December 19, 2010

Kneehigh Theatre is responsible for one of the best shows I’ve seen since I moved to London, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, and while the next show I saw them do (Don John) seemed very unfinished and unsatisfying, I don’t expect good companies (or playwrights) to always bat 1000. When you’ve hit as high as Brief Encounter, I’m going to give you a lot of slack. And I’m going to keep coming back, for a very long time, hoping that you’ll hit that moment of pure genius again, or that at least you’ll give me theater that I enjoy and remember. With this in mind, I cracked open my suffering bank account and coughed up 25 quid (somewhat sulkily as I consider panto-type entertainment more appropriately priced at 15 a pop) for tickets to their new(ish) production, Hansel and Gretel.

To be honest, I was actually _not_ going to go because it was over my price point, but one of my best friends wanted to go as a Christmas thing for us to do together, so I dug deeper than usual and hoped it would be great. And then, you know, if push came to shove I could console myself with seeing it early enough that I could get a good review in, right? I did get a little more excited when a letter came the week before the show announcing that after a trial run, they’d determined this show was really probably too scary for under-eights (and offering refunds if necessary). Ooh, a spooky, non-panto Hansel and Gretel! I had a flashback to the bloody and frightening Cinderella the Lyric Hammersmith put on a few years back. Terrifying fairy tales sound good to me and like a nice break from Christmas fairies and talking horses.

This brings us to snowy and cold today, and a house full of (many) children at Queen Elizabeth hall. I was actually quite disappointed to see a fairly traditional stage set up – the website said “Head down to the forest this Christmas as Kneehigh Theatre lead you through a spellbinding world of wit and wonder, earthly delights and eerie woods” and I thought this might mean a promenade version of H&G, which, I think, would have been really awesome. Alas, there was no being led through the woods: only the characters were going to be on stage.

The set up was two-three musician/singer types and four actors, two consistently playing the kids, and a man and a woman playing Mom and Dad then later Birdie and The Witch (as well as a pair of puppet bunnies who had more charm in them than all of Or You Could Kiss Me). Act one was a drawn out affair establishing the kids’ personalities (Hansel, a dreamer and wanna-be intellectual; Gretel, an inventor who makes Rube Goldberg affairs) and then showing the long slide of the Woodcutter’s family into poverty and starvation. The songs performed in this act were all strangely tuneless; however, the theme of being abandoned by your family really seemed to strike a chord with the audience, as there was rather a lot of blubbing, moaning, and choked sobs in the auditorium. I’d forgotten that this fairy tale was not just about a witch: having your family abandon you because they couldn’t take care of you is probably a lot closer to a child’s fears than being eaten alive. At any rate, this story did not have a lot of joking and cute to take the sting of this terror away. Don’t be mistaken: this is a play and NOT a panto and it is not a cheerful tale. My friend said it was even hard to watch as the parent of children under eight, so I can guarantee a four year old should not be brought to this show.

I was relieved when Hansel and Gretel were properly lost and the story could get on with getting on, which happened pretty much right at the break. Act two had a mock banquet with the witch (who looked very much like a panto dame in her garish dress) making lots of food for the kids to eat; then eventually Hansel winds up in a cage while Gretel tries to figure out how to save him, which she does with the help of one of her crazy inventions (a nice plot twist). I don’t think the witch was too scary – in fact, I enjoyed her rather a lot (and I liked the dualism of having her done by the kid’s father) – though the final scene where she is burned and comes out of the fire twice might get a lot of screeches and some terror. Still, that part was a nice bit of theater and I enjoyed it a great deal.

However, I found the show kind of flat overall and just feeling very much “this has been done before.” Even though the puppets were a great touch, I was really hoping for something that would reach out and engage us more, and not by being asked to sing the Canadian national anthem. This goes down as a disappointment for me – it needed to be about 20 minutes shorter and all of the songs needed rewriting. Ah well. Maybe I’ll have better luck when they do Umbrellas of Cherbourg – God knows I am already trying to figure out when I’m going to see it and it’s still months away!

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Sunday, December 19th, 2010. The show continues through Sunday, January 2nd, 2011.)

Mini-review – Red Riding Hood – Theatre Royal Stratford East

December 18, 2010

I loves the panto. To me it makes Christmas feel like Christmas … in England. So when my friend Exedore said “Hey! We must go to Stratford and see the black Red Riding Hood!” I was all up for it, especially since I’d never been to Stratford and thought it would be a cool opportunity to check out a theater I hadn’t seen before. I am also frustrated by how London’s theater is very non-representative of its ethnically diverse population; the few shows I’ve seen that really made an effort either through choice of show (August Wilson) or casting to oomph it up to make me think that there’s a talent base here that isn’t really getting a chance to shine.

It turns out, though, that this is (appropriately enough) a mixed-color cast, not all black, but with the perfectly cast Chloe Allen as “Red,” I was not particularly bothered about the overall breakdown of the performers, but utterly charmed with an actress with style, presence, and a creamy singing voice. Adult actors aren’t always so good as 8 or 12 year olds but as the “I really want to do good, but I keep messing up” little girl, Allen was utterly convincing and a treat to watch.

Less successful, I’m afraid, was Derek Elroy as Granny. Now, I loved the idea of a Jamaican granny off in the woods waiting for someone to bring her a little broth to eat (and pretending to be sick because she doesn’t feel like cooking), but I expect my panto dames to have a huge presence, and Elroy just wasn’t there. He’s got a fine singing voice, but the “I own the stage” attitude was not out in full force. I blame a bit the costumes, which I think needed to be cranked up by a factor of 11, but there’s also a bit of blame to be passed to the script, which I thought was rather weak.

The writing did have some highlights, particularly in making the Big Bad Wolf (Michael Bertenshaw) as a property developer. Given the shenanigans going on in this part of town, this put a light political sheen over the whole evening I found most appropriate. And the ongoing jokes about the Woodcutter (Marcus Ellard)’s “big axe” (and how it wasn’t the size that counted, and the way he held it during the scene when it was biggest) cracked me up. I’m pretty sure it mostly coasted over the kids’ heads but I really enjoyed having a titter of my own.

However, I was bored by the whole “three pigs” subplot, and I found the musical numbers and dancing just not nearly up to the quality of the Hackney panto. Still, it was yet another sold out show, the kids screamed throughout, and the whole audience waved their glowsticks in unison for the big number that took place in the belly of the wolf, so clearly the target audience was eating it up. My opinion will have little impact: Theatre Royal Stratford East already has a hit on their hands.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 10th, 2010. It continues through January 22nd, 2011. Don’t worry if the show is sold out online; many tickets don’t appear on their map – in my browser at least – so you’re best off just calling the box office directly.)

Review – On the Twentieth Century – Union Theatre

December 16, 2010

On Tuesday I had the good fortune to be guested into the first preview of the Union Theatre production of “On the Twentieth Century” (this review site is finally doing SOMETHING for me, though I would have surely gone on my own nickel anyway). I have been pleased again and again by the Union’s revival of golden-age American musicals: would this be another hit?

I didn’t realize until I cozied up to the program that this musical, unlike Annie Get Your Gun or Bells Are Ringing wasn’t so much from that golden age as from, well, the last of the tail end of the silver age of American musicals. In fact, it’s almost a contemporary of Xanadu, the nail-in-the-coffin for movie musicals, though the music’s flavor has, I don’t know how to put it, a flavor of Sondheim to it. Rather than the bounce-along-to-it, upbeat tones of Irving Berlin or Jule Styne, the songs were full of harmony without the hooks; but still, the lyrics (and the book) were witty and drew your attention into the show rather than just wasting space like an unused coat rack, poking into the air waiting for something interesting to happen. So this is the structure we had to build the evening upon; not something I’d consider a true classic musical, but a revival of a show that had been gathering dust for a while; only we’re talking bell-bottoms rather than gingham square-dancing skirts.

Still (thankfully), the play was set in a situation that had all of the feel of a classic: in the 30s, on a train, with the ever-popular clash of Broadway versus Hollywood. (I thought it was kind of 42nd Street hashed with Singing in the Rain and a bit of A Star Is Born only very tongue-in-cheek rather than sincere or depressing.) Oscar Jaffee, a failing, manic Broadway producer (Howard Samuels) is on the train with the woman he brought to fame (as depicted in a delicious audition vignette) some five years or so before, who’s left New York for an Academy-award winning West Coast career. Now that he’s down on his luck, he wants to take her burnished Hollywood star and use Lily Garland (Rebecca Vere) to light up his next show. And, well, maybe it just might be that there’s a little bit of romance between them … or there once was, but the chemistry is still VERY much there. It all has a solid 30s feel to it. However, the actual era of the show comes through in the way it plays out – Lily is very independent, and the show doesn’t end on a golden-era formula “happy” wrapup (though given the way shows are sweetened up these days to make them more “palatable” I’m guessing we’ve taken a step backwards since 1978).

However, the modern era gives this show room to have a lot more fun than you would have got in the days of Hays code – Lily gets very frisky with her silver screen co-star Bruce Granit (Robbie Scotcher) and even engages in some furry-like behavior with him; and there’s a postmodern-y “metasong” commenting on the “playness” of what we’re watching, as three different characters waylay Oscar at most unexpected times to tell him “I’ve Written a Play!”

One thing I was very surprised to see (in the more culturally conservative 21st century) is people making fun, heartily, of religious people, as one of the key members of the show is “Mrs. Primrose,” who is described, in my favorite part of they play, as “a nut” (which is much more gentle than “fanatic” – ah, the good old days). There’s a scene where everyone is freaking out that religious stickers are being placed all over the train and everyone on it: when they appeared, I was immediately struck with a hankering to get one of those stickers myself (they were very Temple of the Golden Dawn). I got my chance when Mrs. Primrose (Valda Aviks) broke into her big solo, “Repent,” in which she travelled across the stage singing things like, “In every town we’re passing through/Beneath a bush, inside the zoo/I know there’s dirty doings going on.” She came close to me with her fist full of stickers, and I stuck my hand out …. she looked me in the eye and said, “Like you I once was wild/Men shouted, “Oh you kid”/A life of shame I led/And dirty doings did,” then pasted a sticker on my hand. My night was complete! Later Aviks showed she was a real comic genius as she mugged her way behind the plethora of actors both looking for her and singing about looking; the faces she made as she mocked every word they said just had me in stitches.

Really, Ariks was just the highlight of the show for me; I found act one dragged a bit, and while the singing and music was fine, I wasn’t blown away (and at about 100 minutes it was a LONG first act). But the screwball comedy shenanigans and faster pace of act two really “brought it home” for me, and at the end, I felt the evening was a success. This may not be a “must see” musical, but I think in a time of year when it’s almost nothing but panto panto panto, an trip to see “On the Twentieth Century” would be just the thing to knock the cobwebs out. God knows it had more verve in one number than I saw in an entire evening of Sondheim’s Passion!

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, December 14th, 2010. On The 20th Century continues through Saturday January 15th, 2011.)

Review – Matthew Bourne’s 2010 “Cinderella” – Sadler’s Wells Theatre

December 9, 2010

Last night I went to see Matthew Bourne’s radical updating of Cinderella at Sadler’s Wells. The conceit of the whole show is that it is London during the Blitz; Cinderella (Kerry Biggin, I think, rather than Mikah Smillie) is the forgotten child of a family of six, with two stepsisters and three stepbrothers, including one I would call “grabby” as he constantly making a move toward Cinders (a problem NOT in any version of this story I’d seen before!). Rather than a ball, the family is heading out to the Cafe de Paris nightclub; rather than a prince and a castle, we have an airman (Sam Archer, I believe) and the promise of a life rather more mundane than fairytale (but happy nonetheless).

Still, Bourne fixes clearly on the important emotional elements are: the feeling of being excluded; the desire to be wanted; a chance to experience the admiration of others after a lifetime in the shadows; the attempt to fix a “near miss” at love. A dance and shoes seem to be required for flavor, but a fancy coach is gone. The father element has become more tragic with his transformation into a man confined to a wheelchair. Overall, the magical elements have been pulled away and a painful, yet believable, story is left behind. Panto drag stepsisters gone? I say hurray; this kind of comedy is a distraction to the story.

The ballet is in three acts. It starts slowly with the character-setting first act. Our evil stepsisters are glamorous 40s debutantes; the very wicked stepmother (Michela Meazza, looking like she does in every Bourne show) is an alcoholic Joan Crawford type who really seems to be seconds away from pulling out a wire hanger; the brothers are in term lewd, louche, and mommy-fixated. There is a burst of energy as invites to a dance arrive; but it’s actually far more exciting when an injured airman shows up seeking shelter. This isn’t a part of the story we expect, and it adds a real edge: where did he come from? When is he going to appear again? Since when does the stepmother go for Cinderella’s love interest? The dancing itself in this act is forgettable, aside from the bit when Cinderella tries to dance with her paraplegic father and her dance with the mannequin/Prince substitute. It’s a relief when the fairy shows up and spirits her out of her house and into the rubble-strewn streets of London; I found we spent far too much time in her stifling house and were not nearly entertained enough while we were there.

Act two is the voyage to and arrival at the ball. Some of the best lighting design comes as Cinderella and the Airman find and lose each other in the darkened streets of Blitz London; street patrols illuminate and block them as they rush back and forth trying to find each other. They finally wind up together at the Café de Paris, which the program notes is “Cinderella’s dream and nightmare:” look up the history of this place (it’s in the notes) if you need to know why. I found all of my ability to enjoy the spectacle of dancing overwhelmed by the heavy weight of impending death as I waited for the bomb to strike the restaurant. It changes the whole feeling of this scene from anything it was before to a Masque of the Red Death, rather than Cinderella’s triumph; she escapes, alive, with the man she loves, but with the rest of the dancers dead (apparently the band leader had his head blown off in real life, I found myself very creeped out by this), there’s no joy in it. I was also very confused by how she went from mousy brown to a platinum blonde in this scene, though I just loved her glamorous white gown.

Act three has the best design of the show, with a delicious hospital ward created by a glowing red cross hovering in the air and white curtained panels moved around by doctors and nurses. The Airman is searching for Cinderella, which gives us the opportunity for a rather salacious scene in a prostitute-filled Tube station as well as a violent encounter on the Embankment; truly, in war, all the rules of morality have gone by the wayside, and anyone can be a victim. Eventually, as required, we have our reunion for the two lovers; deliciously, the stepmother is taken to jail. We finish at a train station, bidding goodbye to the newlyweds while the fairy finds another person needing some magic in their lives.

It’s taken me rather a lot of time to chew through how I felt about this production and whether or not I thought it worth recommending. During it I found myself feeling very distant from the action on stage; I was never caught up by the dance, even though I enjoyed thought the solos of the fairy (actually referenced as “the angel” in the program, and because there was no cast sheet I can’t say for certain who was playing it the night I saw it) . I did, however, love the set, lighting, and luscious 40s costuming; the grey palette (a deliberate homage to black and white movies) felt less like a pushy design decision and more like something that caught the austerity and gloom of war-time London. Ultimately, I think, I’m going to say yes to this Cinderella, not just because it is beautiful, but because its reworking of the story, its Bourne-ian deconstruction to the heart of the matter, succeeds better in telling the tale than any straightforward rendition would have. It showed me a new side of the classic, and, while I would have preferred more dancing, I left feeling like I’d managed to pick up a little more magic in the air than there had been before I went in the room. Who would think that by removing nearly every bit of unreality from this story Bourne would create something more universal than what he started with? It’s not perfect, but it’s a good night of theater, and my guess is that as a Cinderella, I’ll be thinking of this story much longer than any version with gawping comedy stepsisters stomping around on the stage and making a spectacle of themselves, because it’s not, after all, their story; it’s hers.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, December 7th, 2010. Cinderella continues at Sadler’s Wells through January 23rd, 2011. For a more positive view, see Judith Mackrell in The Guardian; for one capturing my frustration with the dance, see the always eloquent Clement Crisp of the Financial Times.)

Review – Nutcracker – Northern Ballet, Grand Theatre Leeds 2010

December 7, 2010

Every Christmas I have three theatrical traditions I celebrate: seeing “A Christmas Carol,” watching Clive Rowe in the Hackney Panto, and going to a new version of the Nutcracker. I’ve seen City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Mark Morris, and Matthew Bourne’s version, among others; I am a real Nutcracker fan. I love the music; I love the endless possibilities of the suite; I struggle gamely through Act One hoping that whatever version I see will finally manage to make some sense of the music.This year Nutcrackers are thin on the ground in London, so I was obliged to do a bit of travelling in order to see Northern Ballet’s version. Still, Leeds isn’t that far away, East Cost does nice early purchase deals, so off I went for a balletic field trip to the north … in the middle of some of the most extreme weather England has seen in early December in decades. Brrr!

The Leeds Grand was an absolutely gorgeous venue, just like being inside a jewelry box, with gilding and carved detail everywhere I looked (and a bar with stained glass windows, so pretty!). It was also more intimate that some of the ballet houses in London, more the size of Sadler’s Wells. Sadly the snow seemed to have chased a lot of people away (Black Watch had the same problem the night before), but the cast had all made it and we started pretty close to 7PM in spite of the weather.

To my great relief as the curtain opened, I saw that this production had an adult Clara (Isabella Gasparini) from the very start, so the pain of an entire act performed in great deal by child dancers was avoided. Whew! The first bit was done in front of a drop as if in the hallway of Edwards’ home outside the dining room, with Clara and her brother Frederic (Ashley Dixon, consistently good) bickering over toys while Grandpa (Tobias Batley) napped in a chair and the maids ran in and out of the back room setting up for the meal. Most of the dancing in this section was very light – it was mostly about establishing character.

At last we were allowed into the great room for a big party that featured a love interest (the previously unheared of “Clara’s sister, Louise,” played by Lori Gilchrist, and “Louise’s friend, James,” Martin Bell) and, of course, the arriver of Drosselmeyer (Michal Berkin). This was a very different Drosselmeier from what I was used to – young, tall, handsome, long blond hair, and a big purple, sparkly cape. He seemed like a cross between the Mad Hatter and Willie Wonka – both as played by Johnny Depp. He had none of the creepy evil that many Drosselmeyers have, instead seeming rather as if he was made of cotton candy and glitter.

This was, I think, true of the ballet as a whole. Clara seemed to smile too much and have no other emotions; the mouse king never seemed truly threatening; the entire element of Clara “becoming a woman” (crossing over from love of dolls to love of boys) seemed to completely vanish from the plotline. Ah well, it was hard to complain, though, with such a perfect set and costume design to highlight all of the meringue of a plot. Act one had dance variations of two sets of dolls, one the French dolls (much more attractive as harlequins, I think) and a Chinese doll (Giuiano Contandini) who disappointingly didn’t do much more than flop around on the stage. I actually enjoy the way this bit often feels like the spooky evil magician of Petrushka is actually playing with doomed spirits for the amusement of children, but these seemed not particularly tragic. Ah well.

The Christmas tree failed (for the first time ever!) to expand magically as Clara fell asleep, but when her nutcracker cast away his giant head we got Yoshihisa Arai, whose very few opportunities to dance unencumbered showed a strong sense of style which he generally quite politely contained in the bounds of his character. Eventually I caught myself just ignoring Clara and looking for him – was he going to give one of those great leaps again while I wasn’t paying attention?

The Suites were … well, choreographed … unexcitingly. The Spanish dance didn’t have any real flamenco in it but was at least not offensively off; the Arabian dance (a woman borne aloft by two bare-chested men) was mostly about stretching and balancing; the Chinese dance and the Russian dance had music blasting full of energy overwhelming the actual movement on stage. Clara kept jumping into the dances – a nice touch of personality – but what I really would have liked to see is the power of what I was hearing matched by what I was seeing. I loved the unified look of it all, with the blue and white Chinese porcelain decorating Clara and the Nutcracker Prince’s pavilion – but I think in order to be a really good Nutcracker, it’s going to need a lot more work with what’s happening on stage. In short, it was a pleasant enough evening, but not a Nutcracker I’ll be using as a reference point for future performances of this classic work. It’s very family friendly, though, so I would recommend people who have the opportunity to see it do so.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 2nd, 2010 at the Grand Theatre, Leeds. It continues there through December 12th.)

Review – Black Watch – National Theatre of Scotland at the Barbican (2010)

December 3, 2010

One of my theatrical regrets of 2008 was missing Black Watch, the enthusiastically reviewed National Theater of Scotland’s production about Scottish soldiers in Iraq. I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing a war play – too often theater on modern themes winds up being nauseatingly moralistic, and I thought this production might also suffer from being mawkish. Still, I was put off by the high prices, then the “sold out” notices made it impossible to get a ticket. I thought I had a reprieve when the show was moved to New York in perfect timing for a family trip, but $100 tickets wound up being even more than the Barbican! I gave up; it was not to be.

That is, until the Barbican’s fall 2010 season was announced, and there it was again: critical favorite Black Watch. The tickets were still way over what I like to pay (I’m more of a 15 gal, these were 32 even with my member’s discount), but I choked down my “I could see two shows for this” feelings and forked it over … then waited two months for the show.

I’m not really sure what else there is to say about this show that hasn’t been said elsewhere: the trope is guys from a Scottish regiment being interviewed about life as soldiers and in Iraq, with the story flipping beteween scenes of them being interviewed after they’ve returned to Scotland, illustrations of them talking about what they are showing rather like in a graphic novel (in particular, the regiment’s history and how it got its uniform), and them just basically living their lives as soldiers, hiding out in their quarters, talking to the press, making jokes as they go on patrol, et cetera. The “life as lived” clearly seems to mostly follow a forward narrative that explains how a group of 6 men in a bar lost half their number after an ambush; it comes as no surprise that it will happen and to whom it will happen. To be honest the deaths, the lives of the victims, and the actual death scene were in no way sentimental, to my relief. It is war and soldiers die in it, and it is not about them being good, or having connections at home, or being bad (and “deserving” their deaths); all of the guys knew they had signed up for a job in which death was a likely component, and all of them seemed very practical about this. In some ways, it seemed to inform a bit of their hysteria and excess of living in most of the show, and that edge was probably part of the reason they joined up, because fighting, killing and living a dangerous life is a real high. The show is mostly just about what a soldier’s life is like, with a specificity to a particular war enabling the surrounding politics and conditions on the ground to be brought into play, to illustrate what they men were dealing with; and, to my pleasure, the text of the play freely acknowledged this was a “controversial” war … one that in two years ruined a fighting force that had taken 300 years to build.

While the energy of the cast was very high (and the sound painfully loud for both mortar shelling and musical interludes), I’m afraid I found this show … well, a bit canned. It’s so tightly choreographed that there seems to be no room for play or improvisation. I truly bought the cast members in their roles and had a hard time remembering that they were just as likely to be gay as well as the hypermacho straight men they were playing, but … I couldn’t connect with it. It was done as a bit of theatrical reportage, and I responded to it unemotionally. I was shocked to hear that this was a completely new cast from the one that had toured before, as they seemed to be tired, or just lack the engagement I would like to see. Perhaps this is due to them having fairly recently arrived at the Barbican, or perhaps the forty empty seats that greeted them proved dispiriting (the snow kept many folks away, it seemed). I can’t say one way or another, but I’m sorry to say that this just wasn’t the “must see” theater I was hoping for. Perhaps you will have better luck.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 1st, 2010. It continues through January 22nd, 2011. Running time is less that 2 hours so it is an ideal play for a school night.)

Review – Iolanthe – Union Theatre

December 1, 2010

Sasha Regan’s “Iolanthe,” currently sold out for the remainder of its Union Theatre run, proves once again that when it comes to putting the magic into musicals, she has the perfect touch. With merely a piano and a pile of costumes cobbled together out of a charity shop’s cast-offs – and a stupendous cast – she’s taken a rag-and-bone Gilbert and Sullivan leftover and turned it into an evening of such artistic intensity it had one of my friends tearing up. Gilbert and Sullivan, people: the kings of Victorian treacle, the princes of patter, the Grande Dames of Ham, I don’t think of them as aspiring to anything more than cleverness, and even that is frequently utterly squashed beneath a foot thick maudlin icing.

Still, rushing into the crowded, dank theater to take my dunces seat behind a pillar, I had hope (and an utter ignorance of the plot). The lights went down, the piano began to tinkle away (I thought I could hear it saying, “Iolanthe!”), and handfulls of young men came in to explore what now seemed to be a school attic, full of old clothes, sports equipment, and spare furniture. They ran off as the overture ended, then returned dressed in the finery they’d rescued from the walls and wardrobe – old nighties, Victorian tops and knickers, girdles and gowns, accessorized with wings made of nets, pennants, and adorable little badminton birdes. They were still very much boys, but boys with a little bit of extra sparkle and lip gloss – in fact, they’d been transformed into a band of fairies! They launched into their first song (“Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither,” thanks to the Boise State Gilbert & Sullivan Archive for the titles) with somewhat reedy falsetto voices, and while I found myself a bit suspicious of the singing quality, I was thoroughly sold by the delivery and the really energetic choreography – these fairies couldn’t fly but they sure could leap!

Brilliant move number one was when the Fairy Queen came on stage – a burly fellow with a dead coyote tossed over his shoulder in a way that somehow suggested Scottish formalwear (more directly referred to later when a gent appeared wearing a dust-mop sporran – hysterical!). As solidly built as he was, to me he really had a regal air and sense of power – perfect for the role! He was also just exceedingly handsome. Once he appeared, the magic of theater basically flew in the door like snow through an open window, and I was no longer confused by, “Hey, these are men playing fairies, aren’t these rolees supposed to be done by girls?” I’d bought the conceit of the “boys having fun on a lark,” the sort of Peter Pan meets Narnia feeling, but after this I headed straight into “being lost in a show-land,” which is really where I want to be, not analyzing, questioning, and criticizing, but just unabashedly enjoying myself (and occasionally going, “Ooh, yummy!”).

Now, the plot of this show is very silly, as it’s about a half human/half fairy boy who is put into parliament with the help of his supernatural relatives, and is just as much about the comedy that is politics (a never-ending source of humor through the ages, I am thinking) as it is a comedy of love, and occasionally I found a song, well, longing to be cut, but generally most of the singing was good and I very much enjoyed the ride that I was being taken on. And as for the cross-gender casting, well, what I saw was a cast that devoted themselves to acting, to being their characters, neither camping it up nor engaging in the sort of “we know this is all corny” nudge-and-wink acting I associate with most G&S, and through their efforts actually managing to get to the heart of the show, which is ultimately about human concerns: about love, betrayal, sacrifice, and mortality. When Iolanthe sang, diagonally across the stage to the rather glowing young chancellor, “My Lord, a suppliant at your feet,” begging that he take pity on her son – a plea that in the end will cost her her own life – its fragility captured perfectly her own exposure at letting herself appear in the human world, but also the deep love that would cause a mother to make a move that would put herself at risk of death for her child. It’s easy to laugh about a play who has as a main character a man who’s “human from the waistcoat down” – but the feelings underneath it are universal – and well served by this production. While this production is not one for opera fanatics, for both general theater lovers and Gilbert and Sullivan diehards, the emotional range and genuine magic are ones that make it a must-see. And I’m afraid some of the “fairy dust” will likely be left behind if it transfers: there’s something about having actors whispering in your ear that makes the suspension of disbelief all so much easier. Call and ask for returns, and brave the wait at the door if you must; Iolanthe is a must see.

(This review is for a production that took place on November 28th. The show runs through December 11th. To be honest Strephon was a bit weak – a friend of mine called him an energy suck – but that’s all been forgotten three days later. Apologies for not giving any credits but I’m afraid I lost my program.)