Archive for March, 2011

Review – Rocket to the Moon – National theatre

March 30, 2011

Clifford Odets is to me the Steinbeck of American theatre – powerful in his description of the American Depression, warmheated toward the common man, optimistic in his belief in humanity’s underlying good nature. The first play I saw by him (Waiting for Lefty at Theater Schmeater) sold me on its mix of realistic dialogue leavened with moments of gorgeous poetry on the topic of the human soul.

So I was very pleased to see another Odets play being staged at the National this season. As usual I avoided any publicity to keep it all a surprise, though I peeked enough to see that it was set in a dentist’s office in New York City in 1938 (in the depths of the Depression). The curtain opened on a stunningly realistic set, complete with high ceilings, two sub-rooms in the office, a view across the street, a long hallway with doors to all the other offices mentioned in the play, and a fully outfitted surgery. For the dental phobic, I promise you that all but one scene takes place in the waiting room, though having the curtain come up on act two with the sound of drilling jangled my nerves. Eek!

The story … well, I liked having it be a surprise for me, so I don’t want to say too much. Ben Stark (Joseph Millson) is a kind-hearted dentist of about 40 who is in a childless marriage with Belle (Keeley Hawes). Belle is very conservative about money, while Stark is checked out from life. His father-in-law, Mr Prince (Nicholas Woodeson), bullies Stark just as much as his daughter does, while Cleo (Jessica Raine), bounces around the office being a cute muppet and telling stories about her very wealthy family that seem hard to believe from someone who can barely manage a grammatically correct sentence.

The central issue of this play is whether or not Dr. Stark is going to break out of the walls he’s created for his life (and his potential) and do something with himself, or whether the big brick walls of social expectations are going to keep him put. He has a lot of people pushing and pulling him both ways, so it is a real question just where this play is going to end up. And much as in Strindberg, this play makes it clear that in order for people to really fuck each other up, there’s nothing like a twenty year marriage; parents, by comparison, are far more escapable.

Accepting that the plot is good, we are left with the acting. I think Woodeson was a complete star, as arrogant and pushy and hot and cold as his character needed, over the top and 100% terrifying. Hawes, meanwhile, had her own hot and cold to believe with and was genuine enough for her terror at a change in her own life to come through sympathetically rather than as her being manipulative. Millson, though, was just a bit too soft with his character; I think he needed not to cave in on himself and start disappearing. Raine, however, was so over the top that I found her distracting. She was an actress doing a character on the stage, and while she got the primping and bouncing and sauntering fine, there was just too much of it. And her qaccent was so heavy and puton that she pushed the words out of her mouth like she was spitting out peas. It was just too much for me, was in the balcony and it felt like she was sitting in my lap!

Overall, however, I found this a fine production that overcame its first act slump to deliver a ripe reward – a play in which people and their conflicts, internal and external, were examined with painful accuracy.

Review – Band Wagon – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

March 28, 2011

One of last year’s major discoveries for me was the Lost Musicals series, usually at Sadler’s Wells and always on Sundays. I like my songs singable and that’s what Lost Musicals delivers, music from the Golden Age of the Great White Way. Based on my good experience last year (after randomly going to the first one of the year I eventually went to all three showsParis, The Day Before Spring and Darling of the Day), I went ahead and booked for all shows in this year’s series, thereby taking advantage of a small discount and guaranteeing several wonderful Sundays full of gorgeous music and the kind of plots that seem to have fallen out of fashion (outside of Salad Days revivals).

This year’s first show is is The Band Wagon, which, let’s be clear, is NOT the MGM musical, with which it only has a few songs in common. This, the original version, is actually a musical revue, with a pile of good songs (“I Love Louisa,” “Miserable with You,” “High and Low”) interspersed with a few comedy sketches. There is also a few dance numbers thrown in to liven it up.

However, this is not really my cup of tea, as I like my musicals to be held together with what I’ll call “plot.” I want songs that help develop character and move a story along, not just entertain and show off people’s voices. Now, I imagine this would have been a truly spectacular event when it was done with Adele and Fred Astaire, but Barnaby Thompson and Clare Rickard, while certainly able to tap dance (and I do love tap dancing) … well, is a comparison in the least bit fair? I also found the various comedy sketches (by George Kaufman and Howard Dietz) amusing but … I mean, why WOULDN’T they be dated? Oddly, at least, these weren’t dated by racism or sexism, it’s just that … well, a sketch in which people are too shy to say the word toilet doesn’t really bowl me over. However, just fresh from Eight Women, I did get a laugh out of “The Great Warburton Mystery.” Similarly, the opening song, “It Better Be Good,” was fairly timeless – what theater goer doesn’t mutter the same thing to herself while waiting for the curtain to rise?

While this was just the first performance of a nearly month-long run, I’m afraid this show didn’t hold as much charm for me as the other ones I’ve seen, in part because the songs, while enjoyable, were all new to me (thus no pleasure from hearing them in their original setting); and then again because I do really prefer to hear my songs with stories connecting them rather than standing all on their own. There are probably many people who will enjoy this production for their own reasons, but this wasn’t for me. On the other hand, Cole Porter’s Mexican Hayride, never revived since its first performance in 1944 … I can’t wait!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, March 27th, 2011. It continues on Sundays through April 17th.)

Review – Eight Women – Southwark Playhouse

March 27, 2011

While many people who go to see Eight Women at the Southwark Playhouse are doing so because they enjoyed the original movie (described to me as a “quasi-musical”), this was not the case for me. In fact, in a sort of ideal piquing of my general desire to go to see good shows with zero expectations, I bought tickets for Eight Women knowing absolutely nothing about it other than that my friend Kate wanted to go. She’s my co-conspirator in many of my obsessions, loving the Drowsy Chaperone unreservedly and encouraging me to check out such genius films as The Big Sleep while being willing to enjoy Xanadu. Katy’s seal of approval, combined with the Southwark Playhouse’s attractive ticket prices, was all the convincing I needed. So on Friday off we went to the (slightly less dank than usual) tunnels under London Bridge to check out this play.

If you, too, want to enjoy this show without any preconceived notions, you can stop reading after this paragraph; I enjoyed it immensely and found it not just entertaining but a good use of both my time and money. Is that enough? If not, keep on but be warned some minor spoilers may await, though I will do my best to keep it to a minimum. I loved seeing this show without a tiny clue about what was going to happen and advise it highly as the best way to ensure every surprise stays fresh.

For those of you who don’t want to be quite as clueless as I was, Eight Women is a murder-mystery featuring (shock!) eight women, who, in keeping with the Mousetrap style of this show, are stuck together … in an English country house … in the snow … that’s cut off from the outside world … and all suspect each other … of murder. Rather than being a bunch of strangers (like Mousetrap), most of these women are family – the mother, Goneril (Bernice Stegers); her two daughters, Susanna and Catherine (Kate Ward and Sophie Kennedy Clark); her sister, Regan (Sasha Waddell), and her mother (Tamara Hinchco), and the two servants (Maxine Howard and Alice Anthony). Setting it up this way enables the play to be much more about the relationships between the women, rather than just a guessing game about who’s not telling the truth about when they were iat midnight the evening before.

Unexpectedly, there are lots of long term resentments between the women, especially between mom Goneril and her neurotic, drama-seeking, hypochondriac, “old maid” sister Regan, as well as between the two of them and their own mother. Fortunately all of this is played for laughs from top to bottom (though the night I went the occasional loud noise did get some screams as well … from the woman sitting behind me), and the cast was well up for hamming it up, with both granny and Old Maid going for comedy gold in the second act while Mom continued stomping around looking a bit like a grumpy, middle aged transvestite. You could almost smell Almodovar lurking around the corner.

That said, the other actresses really dug into their roles, aiming at creating a great show with texture and flavor rather than trying all to be funny and ruining everything. The youngest character, Catherine, torn between tears (early on) and her naturally rebellious, adventurous nature was a spot-on depiction of bored and 16; the “long suffering maid” Maureen (Howard) had as straight a face as you could ever hope for, while appearing unaffectedly and genuinely warm in many of her scene; the “sexy new maid” Louise (Anthony) handled her character’s many transitions with aplomb, taking us all on her journey (which I don’t want to tell much about) most convincingly. Even the cat fight in the second act somehow made sense, which, if you consider that in the meantime Old Maid had been running around high on amphetamines, was a miracle of normality in chaos as the characters settled down rather like they’d just fallen off of a windowsill and were now going to pretend it had never happen.

I’ve got to hand it to the cast and director Elgiva Field; while this whole thing could have gone so far into farce that I completely lost connection with the characters and no longer cared about the mystery, instead I found myself cruising on a steady stream of laughs (great credit to Sasha Waddell for her star comedienne turn) tied together with steady, realistic acting that kept the whole bubble from completely floating away from reality. Okay, it didn’t seem that realistic – there were rather a lot of coincidences and let’s not forget the denouement – but I completely lost myself in the world of the play for the two or so hours I was at the theater, so much so that I even forgot to check my watch to see just how long the running time was. By golly, I just had myself a good time, and if that isn’t what you want out of a night at the theater than you’ll have gone to the wrong show. Yay to Southwark Theater for presenting this and I doff my hat to Katy for getting my tastes perfectly right again.

(This review is for a play that took place on Friday, March 25th, 2011. It continues through April 9th, 2011.)

Review – Peter Brook’s “A Magic Flute” – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at Barbican Theater

March 24, 2011

There are really just a few reasons to see Peter Brook’s A Magic Flute: because 1) you love The Magic Flute and want to see and hear the music wherever it is performed; 2) you are a Peter Brook “empty space” fetishist and want to see his work wherever it is performed; 3) you are a Magic Flute fangrrl who has to see every variation of this show. As it happened, I am a #2 and the friend I went with (Brrd) was a #3 (she wants to direct her own version).

Who, then, is most likely to enjoy this show? Well, underneath it all, Brrd and I are also Magic Flute fans, and I think we were both disappointed in the music. She is a trained singer and found all of the voices in the show not strong enough to handle singing over full orchestra. I, not trained, found the Queen of the Night (Leila Benhamza) lacking presence and a certain richness that makes her role and music more than just a “see me do this trick” event – all of her music should be lush, but wasn’t. Stripped down is okay for costumes and sets, but it’s not okay for music. As it was, the show only had a piano, and I found myself dissatisfied by how incredibly tinny and thin it sounded, especially when it was supposed to be a flute. I can understand a variety of reasons for getting by with less, but Brrd noted they hadn’t really even raised the lid to let the sound come out. Was it because the singers couldn’t compete? Whatever the decision, from the point of view of fans of the Magic Flute, this was a very dissatisfying evening.

Still, there’s no reason why we couldn’t still have a good time at the show. “A” flute doesn’t have to be “the” flute and can still be good, and both of us were willing to judge this show on its merits. Unfortunately, while I like the idea of getting through an opera in about 90 minutes, so much was cut away from the characterization that Tamino (Antonio Figueroa) came off a bit stupid. Papageno (Virgile Frannais) and Pamina (Agnieszka Slawinska, beautiful) managed to have enough of their clear-cut characters (earthy buffoon, lovesick yet loyal young lady) to create engaging roles.

The Brook style was interesting to see – we had barefoot actors, bamboo poles for scenery, a flute, a blanket, a rope, and a chicken for props. I was able to buy into the world they were creating, especially the fantastic “trial by fire” scene (incredibly theatrical and the best moment of the whole show, a benchmark for other Flutes in my book), but the water scene was nonexistent (and right next to the fire so massively suffering by comparison). I am willing to have my Queen of the Night be wearing just a simple robe, but … overall, just too much was stripped out of the music and the characters for this show to really work. By those standards, I can recommend this production neither to those who love the music or those who are fans of Brook; only go see it if you are a Flute completist. Otherwise, wait for a richer production – either musically (for Flute fans) or dramatically (for Brook fans) – lest you end your evening going, “I just spent how much on that?”

(This review is for a production that took lace on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011. It continues through March 27th.)

Half priced deal for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s new Cinderella at London Coliseum – 2011

March 24, 2011

Today the Metro published a half priced deal for tickets to the Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s new production of Cinderella while it’s at the London Coliseum this spring (March 29- Saturday April 2nd, 2011). There isn’t a lot of availability on key dates (i.e. no stalls seats on Friday April 1st), but it is good for every evening show on every level of seats except for the £10 ones. This is really an outstanding value – an excellent company and no being forced to buy top priced seats!

Details are: either call the ENO box office (0871 472 0800) and quote the Metro offer or go to this page for details (basically use the code “buttons” on the page showing the seats you selected), pick your seats and off you go!

Creating dialogue online: “do”s and “don’t”s for bloggers and tweeters

March 23, 2011

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes for good social media interactions, especially in terms of how people build community and conversation. I’m no social media guru, but I have been a part of online communities since waaaay back in 2000, when Webgrrls was the place for women in tech in the Seattle area to meet — virtually. Back in the day Webgrrls was a free email list that people subscribed to either live or as a daily digest, with messages coming through as a trickle (or sometimes a flood) on a variety of subjects – jobs needed and available, tech tips, resume reviewing, training opportunities, and “NWR” (not work related) where people might ask for roommates or a good place to have a coffee while waiting for an interview at Getty – and people, total strangers, would respond with offers to help. Somehow this list that managed to take people with not much in common and build them into a group of friends – not all of them with all of them, but a lot of little interactions and help and occasionally some face time could build a pool of gratitude and lead to real, face to face friendships. It built a community, and when Webgrrls International decided to make it a for-profit organization – something we saw as shutting out the very women (frequently students or new to their careers) that we wanted to help – we took our community and walked away, creating a new online space (DigitalEve) that reflected our values as a community.

Even in those halcyon days we had problems with things getting nasty online. The community built by a million kind guestures could even more quickly be torn apart by a flame war, as one email (innocent or not) started a cascade of name-calling and finger-pointing. Learning how to cool these fires was a real trick; nearly as important (and easier) was learning how to write in a way that helped cool sparks and pointed out good “netiquette” without being preachy (see the tone section on the DE website).

I learned a lot in those days about community building online, and as there has become this thing called “social media,” I’ve been seeing how the same lessons can be applied here that were back in the stone age of digital communication. I can’t say anything much about Facebook (as I barely use it), but I can speak to tweeting and blogs and community building and community wrecking. I’ll use as my example my new digital community of choice, the online Twitter community of theater bloggers. Twitter is a great way to build an ambient awareness of real people; without seeing them in person, you can keep tabs on how they are and what they’re thinking. It’s a bit like knowing your old neighbor is doing okay because you’ve seen them empty their mailbox, or that your neighbors had a party because they’ve left a huge pile of bottles in the recycle. Some people use Twitter very deliberately for self-promotion (and it is great for sharing things that you’ve written, or silly photos), but where it is excelling for me is in creating, drop by drop, a community that extends beyond people you know in person. I hear manhattnik speak about a great (or terrible) opera he’s seen, but then I hear him asking for someone to go with him, or mourning his cat’s death, and he becomes more than just a few lines of text; he’s a person, with a life, whom I haven’t met but feel like I know.

In other cases, people I’ve only interacted with online are more than willing to take it up in person, either at an organized event (such as the excellent Twespians) or by the willingness of one person to take another person’s offer of “let’s see a show” as an honest invitation and not a set up for stalking. This second is helped by the trust you gain by hearing a person’s daily drops of what-have-you: if you know someone has a job they go to everyday at 7:45 AM, you feel much less worried they’re going to kidnap you. And then, of course, there’s the fun of seeing if people you know online are actually at an event you’re attending; making a face to face connection is actually pretty exciting! It’s even better for me as it means I can have those heated conversations at the interval I might otherwise be missing out on by going to a show alone (and a million thanks to the Ballet Bag ladies for making the Royal Ballet a much less lonely night out).

Building that trust is work, though, and when you’re Tweeting (and blogging) you need to think about what kind of reputation you’re creating for yourself by what you write. Twitter has some special rules: to be interesting, you need to show “personality” but not come off as a psycho – or provide really useful content (a la the New York Times) – without piping through so much crap that people turn you off entirely (for hogging their feed). Unfortunately a lot of semi-corporate theater twitter accounts totally fail to be anything other than PR shills. They tweet reviews and opening nights, but fail to create personality; they ignore responses to their posts and bore their audience. Really obnoxious ones retweet hordes of reviews (or tweets) all at once, succeeding only in becoming irritating and eventually purged.

Excellent accounts, meanwhile, create a personality for their organization and give a taste of what their daily life is like. One of the best of these is Rob Lindsay of the Birmingham Ballet, who not just creates excitement about productions, but makes the whole company seem so much more accessible and real. And Rob does all of this while remaining a good “netizen:” he doesn’t speak ill of people, he doesn’t fan the flames, he credits and promotes others – he builds community. When so many performing organizations are using their Twitter accounts just as another PR mouth, his contribution and style is marked not just as notable but desirable within the online world. Rob uses social media socially.

That’s not to say there aren’t lots of other fun things people and companies can do with Twitter (ie. the Romeo and Juliet “twitter play,” and the fat dollops of weirdness that come out of Betfair), but I’m particularly interested in community building because it is so much what social media can do for good in the world – far more interesting to me than its role as a promotional tool. Blogs are also good at building this community. The “reply all” emails on Webgrrls have been replaced by the more subtle “reply to a person on your friends list” on Twitter and the feeling of listening in to (or being a part of) a conversation it engenders; but this is still limited by the 140 character length of a tweet. Sometimes you’ve got to take it, well, not offline, but to a bigger forum. Doing this in a good way is exemplified by a recent post on the Paine’s Plough blog. A debate flared up on Twitter (as they will) about their touring policy; unsurprisingly, as they’re currently touring a really good show, I was unhappy they weren’t planning a London visit. This caused a lot of discussion that couldn’t really go anywhere or be properly expanded on, but James Grieve took up my suggestion to write about it and created a nice article about why they do what they do and go where they go.

I’d like to explicitly point out how this was an example of good net citizenship. First, he presented all of the twitter conversations directly, allowing people to see what was said and draw their own conclusions. Second, while he linked to my review, he chose to engage the debate at the core of the Twitter posts – why is Paines Plow not touring to London – rather than critiquing my post reviewing their show. Third, his link to my review (where I called them “snobby”) allowed people to read my article on their own and draw their own conclusions about me, not just about my sanity 🙂 but about where I stand as a review and as a person (i.e. I am very cost conscious in my theater going, but am a very dedicated theater fan). Fourth, he completely avoided any sort of “ad hominem” attack – Grieve stuck to my words and to my issues, and did not address who I am as a person. By doing this, he allowed the real issues I raised – about touring to London or to the provinces – to be discussed in an open forum. He furthered the dialogue, and he did it in a way that, to me, helped build community, by making the focus of the discussion about the issue and not about a person.

Andrew Haydon
March 23, 2011
You’ve also unaccountably failed to bring it anywhere near Berlin. You bastards!
But, no, having read the pros and cons, I reckon you’re spot on.
Re: Webcow Girl’s original review. Well, some of it is well meant humour, I’m sure (if demonstrating the same sort of basic lack of self-awareness that makes one hide one’s eyes when reading Liz Jones or India Knight – “it’s funny because I’m selfish!”), while, as you point out, some of it is just plain wrong.
“It turns out this company has a “thing” for not doing shows in London”
Well, apart from all those shows in London PP have done, yes.
“which I found rather ironic (and snobby) considering that much of the play talks about how you just have to live in London if you’re going to have any kind of exciting life”
Which seems to rather miss the irony Bartlett implies when his characters say this.
It’s also a bit like having a go at any production of Three Sisters which doesn’t get to Moscow – “But it’s all about going to Moscow! ”
That said, it strikes me that perhaps the real subject of Bartlett’s play is in fact regional touring itself. “We can’t afford to live in London unless you pay for us!” screams the young theatre company born in the Seventies at the baby-boomer NT and RSC grown-ups. “It’s not the same for us as when you were growing up!”
But, yes, bracing article. Londoners far too used to having everything on a plate. Having once lived in Muswell Hill, I believe most of London can be at least an hour away even if you live in London, so, yeah. Let Mohammed do the occasional bit of leg-work too…

[And here I ran out of energy to keep writing. In short: be nice to each other.]

Review – Love Love Love – Palace Theatre Watford

March 17, 2011

I may be terrible at remembering the names of directors and actors (especially those people on television) but I am very loyal to writers who produce good works for the stage. I have a list of “see everything by” that includes Ibsen, Pinter … and Mike Bartlett. His play Cock blew me away and was without reserve the best play I saw in 2009, convincing me he had a powerful insight into the strange convolutions of the human mind and a craftsman’s love for creating dialogue that sounded like real people talking. Earthquakes didn’t bring me entirely down to ground (I can’t expect a living playwright to have already had the dross culled from the folio), but the deliciously evil, dystopic Contractions had me again.

Thus, wonders of wonders, I, the nine to five girl who will have her eight hours of sleep, agreed, no, chose on her own, to trek across London into the veritable hinterlands, to Watford, on a school night, so that I could see a new(ish) play by this genius among men. Watford. It was only there for four performances, I was gone for two, so Wednesday night it was, and Tim Watson gamely agreed to accompany me (he even knew where the theater is). And looking at the schedule of the other performances for this tour, by “Paines Plough and the Drum Theatre Plymouth,” Watford was in fact the only even slightly possible city besides Oxford I could see it at. It turns out this company has a “thing” for not doing shows in London, which I found rather ironic (and snobby) considering that much of the play talks about how you just have to live in London if you’re going to have any kind of exciting life (and later on about how if you life in London you basically can’t afford to have a life, period). But, you know, these people don’t care if I get my Mike Bartlett fix or not, so I found my way to the Palace Theater for a 7:45 show (and opening night of the run).

Love, Love, Love runs us through forty years of history and… gosh, I don’t really want to give anything away because so much of my enjoyment was about never having a clue about what the curtain was going to rise on as each of the three acts begin, so I’m going to have to be really careful here. It starts in Swinging London with two brothers from a dull town somewhere else both making a go of life in the big city. Only, really, only one of them is trying; the other is his layabout brother Kenneth (Ben Addis) who does a fantastic job of establishing character as he falls off of a couch attempting to get a glass of whiskey with the minimum amount of exertion. Act two is set in an upper-middle class family’s home in 1990, and introduces two fascinating characters; a fourteen year old boy Jamie, who’s crazy about Stone Roses (James Barrett), and his sixteen year old sister Rose (Rosie Wyatt). They have an extraodinarily naturalistic teenaged brother and sister dynamic going on, and I loved seeing how they dealt with the frustrations to their lives caused by their parents and each other.

Various of the characters travel through time as the scenes change, but I found myself distracted by the lack of attempt at making them up to age: characters from the first scene basically remain eternally young. I think this was a deliberate choice (should have picked up the script but a friend confirmed this was how it was the first time around), as it could be seen as nicely symbolizing the “love” generation’s failure to grow up; but I was confused when parents and children appeared to be more or less the same age. This was especially a problem for Lisa Jackson; her mannerisms simply didn’t evolve in a way that was suggestive of age at all; instead, I found her acting more and more like (a young) Katherine Hepburn as she was supposed to be actually older. Grr.

The play manages to make a political point, that the children of the seventies are basically selfishly sucking up all of the money that could be making the lives of their children better, but I found it easy enough to absorb as partially just the point of one character (likely representing the playwright’s point of view) and not as “THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE WE MUST RISE UP IN REVOLT.” As a message, I didn’t find it grating like Earthquakes was because it was framed very much in the context of telling a story and building up character. Instead of leaving me feeling preached at and used, this jibe served as a sort of glossy icing on top of the cake of the story. I found it something that I could ignore in pursuit of coming up with my own answers to the question, “Why does the modern generation seem to have so much less than their parents did?” It just seems to simple to pawn it off as the fault of selfish hedonists of the late sixties but it was fun to have some real ideas to chew on after the show was over.

However, this is not what makes a good night at the theataer. I was very engaged by the story of one family and how they wound up, through their idiocy and bad decisions and horrible parenting, just utterly and completely screwing their kids. It was very believable, if depressing, and the fights that Rosie has with her parents seemed completely realistic, as did the various not very healthy coping strategies she developed to handle their shortcomings. In fact, message or not, I found myself just really caught up in the drama between the four people who ended up together in the final scene. Really, would any of them ever get their lives together, and would any of them ever have the ability to have any kind of meaningful love and connection in their lives? It seemed so sad that only the people who loved, basically, themselves would wind up happy; but to me, this seems quite a truthful ending for Bartlett to choose. The “good guys” don’t necessarily wind up happy, just like in real life, and that, for me, made for a damned good night at the theater.

(Running time was 2:25 including interval. This review was for a performance that took place at the Watford Palace on March 16th, 2011. Love Love Love continues on tour through June 11th at the Curve, Leicester; the Live Theatre in Newcastle; the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough; West Yorkshire Playhouse; the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich; the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton; the Liverpool Playhouse; the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow; the Hull Truck Theatre; the Royal & Derngate, Northampton; and finally, the Oxford Playhouse. For an alternate review, please see What’s On Stage.)

Review – The Red Shoes – Kneehigh Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre

March 10, 2011

It’s easy to rant about bad shows and rave about good ones, but what do you do about a show that leaves you walking away just feeling flat? Kneehigh has stood tall in my estimation since the first performance of theirs I saw, Brief Encounter, which displayed a knack for creating theatrical magic that left me gobsmacked and truly swept away. I love shows that let the audience use their imagination to fill in the gaps, the “Empty Space” aesthetic, and they really seem to get it …

… but not for this show. Four hardscrabble actors in dingy undershirts and BVDs, with dark circles under their eyes, attempt to make this show fly under the watchful eyes of a Jane Avril-like drag queen narrator. We have a stage that is not much more than some doors and a platform overhead; the props are rarely anything more than suitcases (cunningly labeled “Red Shoes,” “Shoemaker,” or whatever character is going to need clothing next) and costumes. The actors mug, scowl, flirt, smile, leer, and generally do their best to push their personalities forward from rude mechanicals who are only given purpose by the narrator.

The tale that is told is the basic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, full of isolation and alienation but with the original emphasis on vanity stripped out. Kneehigh’s “Girl” is lonely, her free spirit beaten down by her blind, adoptive mother; her indulgent shoes are a minor show of personality in a life otherwise focused on drudgery and obedience. When they weld themselves to her feet and she is forced to dance night and day, well, we can see she is suffering, but why has she been chosen for so much pain? Why do the people in the church turn their backs on her? In this rendition, we are left confused by her exlusion from society; it seems it can only be due to her being poor and feisty. And while it’s creepy that the shoes haunt her to the grave and beyond, there seems to be no reason for them to do so, for them to seem so bent on punishing her – and what is the final knock-down-drag-out fight with her and the angel/devil/”spirit of the shoes” about?

Going back and reading the story summary, I think the reason why I wasn’t able to engage with this story was that it was presented too much in black and white (and red); it seemed to be very much about evil shoes rather than the evils of vanity (admittedly not something modern audiences feel much horror for), and didn’t create an alternate version that I could engage with. And, despite having fine theater-craft, it was also just plain old ugly; bald actors, dirty clothing, clunky shoes, just not a moment of uplift and beauty in the whole thing (excluding the music). It was almost like, given the choice of serving us a sandwich with a rotting filling and a layer of burning horseradish relish, we just kind of got a bit of stale, moldy bread; not enough to get violently worked up about, just enough to go “ick” and then turn away. This wasn’t a horrible show, but it lacked soul and felt too much like something that had gone through the Kneehigh digestive process rather than being birthed in joy. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I feel I can clearly advise anyone who hasn’t got tickets that they’re not missing out on much. With Umbrellas of Cherbourg settling in for a nice long run at the Gielgud, there’s most likely a much better option available.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 9th, 2011. It continues at the Battersea Arts Centre though April 9th. As a side note, when there was music, I could barely hear anything the narrator said over the endless chatter of some 6th formers two rows behind me and the crisp-packet-crinkling nightmare directly at my back, which I thought was due to being slightly deaf in my right ear; but my companion said she also couldn’t hear the narrator much of the time, so this was more due to the acoustics and miking in the venue and not so much to insanely rude audience members. That said: I’d much rather not go when the BAC’s sold a bunch of tickets to school groups as these people appear to have not been told that manners are different when watching a play as an audience member rather than when watching TV at home.)

Review – Cleopatra – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand Theatre

March 5, 2011

Story ballets, story ballets. I may be a fan of the night of mixed one acts but I do love story ballets, though I regret that the last 50 years do not seem to have produced anything on par with Giselle (sorry, MacMillan fans – and if you think I’m an outlier, be advised I don’t think he’s even being produced in the US). Sure, there’s been some good retreads of Nutcracker and Swan Lake, but genius seems thin on the boards. It can’t help that ballet companies seem notoriously disinterested in putting on anything their audiences won’t immediately know and love (fairy tale = good, empty houses = bad) and, well, the cost of producing a new ballet is no joke (much as it is for opera). Thus when I heard that Northern Ballet was producing a ballet telling of the life of Cleopatra … well! Its existence and the company’s dedication to putting the money and effort into it were alone worth celebrating, and, to me, it was enough of an event that I didn’t want to wait until it made it to Sadler’s Wells in May … I wanted to experience the excitement of a brand new baby on the dance stage, one that hopefully wouldn’t later be chosen for exposure on the mountains of ignominy. So off I went to the Leed’s Grand, knowing I couldn’t make opening night but willing to settle for opening week.

All things considered, this isn’t quite the risky undertaking it might have been. The topic is one the “arts” audience would seem to be drawn to (much as they take to Shakespeare as danced), and the music (can’t fault creation of an original score!) was, to my ears, very classical sounding and most digestible. I don’t mean to be disparaging, though; so much of modern classical music is atonal and unfriendly and not really offering much in support of a narrative. Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote this score for dance, and for this dance, creating music that with drums and shimmering tambourines built an exotic venue for a tale of power, sex, treachery, and revenge. David Nixon was going for a sort of Diaghilev magic, I think: tempting people to see people dancing by giving them good looking people in sexy clothes in exotic locales doing naughty things with the likely result that suddenly you’re gonna start packing the houses.

The dancing itself was much more engaging than Alice the night before and, while very much in “spinning a tale” mode, still remembered that job one was making a ballet. We had lots of fun numbers for temple dancers (male and female), soldiers and centurions; and duet after duet for Cleopatra and man/God of the hour. And of course there were buckets of solos for Cleopatra (Martha Leebolt); I think she was on stage for nearly the entire show. Angry, scared, seductive, predatory, defensive- she conveyed a million moods with her (I hate to say this but it’s true) flashing eyes, acting as well as dancing. I particularly enjoyed her pas de trois with Octavia (Hannah Bateman) and Mark Antony (Tobias Batley) – the movements of the women’s arms as each attempted both to hold him close and push each other away was mesmerizing. And all three dancers really went for creating character, one of the key elements that makes story ballets awesome. We’re not just watching people being lifted off the ground by one ankle (not that when Kenneth Tindall, as Wadjet, did that to Leebolt that it didn’t leave me slack-jawed) or miming orgies (hey, there was a lot to say about that scene, too), we’re watching people, with feelings and hopes and histories. That was really missing from Alice at the Royal Ballet and I very much enjoyed seeing it here. Through the entire ballet we had also had Wadjet at Cleopatra’s side, as protector and then assassin, which gave the feeling that her serpentine doom was tracking her at every step and added an extra layer of goosebumps I found most pleasant.

Sadly, the one thing that really distracted me from this show was the cheap projected sets, which stuck out like a sore thumb. The colors weren’t saturated enough, there was a horrible glare off of the shiny plastic-like backdrop, and when the dancers moved in front of it, they didn’t just cast shadows, they made the set disappear! I know this stuff is expensive and they needed to create a lot of settings but I found it distracting and a real clash with the care that had been taken dressing the dancers. The costumes were not lavish but did get to lush, with beautiful pleated dresses for the handmaidens and bikinis for the temple girls that reminded me of Roman mosaics I’d seen in Sicily and the coolest simple top and skirt for Cleopatra in most of her scenes … really, I could go on and on about how much I like the costuming, including the evocative red and white tunic/skirts for the Romans that didn’t pander to the “toga” look but created the feel while also being beautiful to dance in and of course the “Macedonian maiden” dresses for the more “seductive” temple dancers in the second act. Only Caesar and Cleopatra’s matching white outfits bothered me – somehow they both wound up looking like costume shop Storm Troopers, with Cleopatra’s clothing flavored by the Princess Leia chain mail bikini.

Overall, I found this a very enjoyable show, not in the least because by seeing it at the Leeds Grand I was able to sit very close to the stage compared to where I would have been had I seen it in London.

Review – Alice in Wonderland – Royal Ballet

March 3, 2011

Alice in Wonderland is not just a favourite book for me, but a favourite theme; for puppet shows, for costume parties, for clothing. It’s like Christmas fairy dust for me: sprinkle some on to whatever you’re doing, and with luck the sparkle will stick. I can’t avoid the call of the Alice any more than some people can wrestle down the attraction of the Olympics or events involving royalty. And thus, in a world in which I love ballet but my hometown team keeps tossing overly-lengthy, spirit-deadening tragedies (Manon, Mayerling) or treacley kiddy fluff (Beatrix Potter, Cinderella) at me, it was with a supernova of excitement I read that the end of winter was going to feature a Royal Ballet, NEW production of Alice. Yippie ki-yi-yay! Top notch dancers, a fat budget, brand-spanking new choreography (always something to be happy about) … my hopes were high!

As usual, I avoided all media coverage before my designated night (including the Ballet Bag girls’ stint as guest Tweeters for the Royal Opera House, although I knew it was happening), so I had no idea that the music was by Joby Talbot, creator of the amazing music that accompanied Wayne MacGregor’s Chroma, or that Simon Russell Beale was apparently doing a Dame (not the red queen thank goodness), but I did know that Chris Wheeldon, founder of Morphoses, was handling the choreography (which Twitter scuttlebutt declared an “audition” of some sort). I didn’t recall being particularly impressed by his choreography on previous outings, but … hey, Alice!

I’m not going to pussyfoot around with a lot of “this is good” and “this is bad” but just get to the meat of it: the first 70 minutes is pants, but the second “half” (50 or so minutes) spanks it six ways to Sunday, so much that it almost seems like two entirely different shows welded together by an intermission. Had, perhaps, Wheeldon spent a year working on “Alice goes to the Queen’s garden” section and completely neglected the rest of the show? The first half managed a fair amount of faith to the text, but the growing/shrinking bit played horribly (too much reliance on projections), the pre-rabbit hold set-up was dull, and Ibi and I were unable to find much in the way of dance for the entire act. Yes, a story was told, yes, there were some great costumes, but, ahem, BALLET. Please to give us the dancing and not just at the very end for the flower dance (which was actually kind of dull).

However, teases of hope were sparked by the delightful handling of the Cheshire cat (proving to me that stage magic is much better created through cardboard and imagination rather than technology) and the brilliant Mad Hatter’s tea party. Fessing up, it was Steve McRae’s tap-dancing hatter that stole the entire first act through the clicking of his hypnotic, metallic toes; I didn’t see what it had to do with the story, but suddenly we had an electric moment on stage and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It was truly novel and a moment of choreographic genius; and McRae may now be the ideal of the Hatter in my eyes (even though his costume stole a bit too much from Mr. Depps incarnation).

Act Two will forever in my mind be the Dance of the Red Queen (Zenaida Yanowsky), or possibly the Red Queen pas de cinq. The brilliance of this bit is that she is being partnered by four terrified playing cards who are expecting every minute that they are going to be executed. They are afraid not to hold her hand or lift her or turn her, but at the same time they are also clearly revolted by doing so. I’ve never seen such a broadly comic dance like this; it wasn’t coarse like the ugly stepsisters are in Cinderella, but again by upturning the expectations of sweetness (a la the Rose Adagio), it made for some genuine laughs. Whatever else happens to this ballet, this scene alone is a work of genius that I hope I’ll have the opportunity to see again.

As for the rest of the ballet, well, dancing flamingos cute, hedgehog croquet fun, all of the characters chasing each other around the queen’s court dull, Beale wasted, ending returning us to modern times bizarre, Alice’s romance (with the Knave of Hearts, Sergei Polunin) absolutely not in the original and too much of a change for me to accept. Maybe if her duets with the Knave had been more exciting I would have felt differently, but as it is it seems like the romance was introduced to allow for the dances, and they were, well, forgettable. As was almost all of Alice’s dancing. And this is a shame, because Lauren Cuthbertson is no clod-hopping pig herder (stage roles aside), but she, like the production, never had much opportunity to show off her brilliant moves. Still, the second act was SO very much better we about forgave the first. Trust me Mr. Wheeldon; you must let the story take care of itself, as the secret to successful adaptations is to make a work of art that is good in the medium in which it is presented, not to be utterly faithful to the original.. Go back to it, cut and redesign, put Alice in blue and let her dance brilliantly in a shorter first act, and suddenly this ballet will become something we’ll all be cheering for.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 2nd, 2011. The final performance of Alice will be Tuesday, Marcy 15th.)