Archive for June, 2011

Review – Blink Again! (turn on the lights) – Above the Stag Theatre

June 30, 2011

It’s been two times lucky with the Blink series at the Above the Stag theater, and I wasn’t about to miss a chance to see the third round of this series of songs from musicals people loved to hate. The format is songs performed with small intros as to their provenance, enhanced this time with a digital projection showing pictures of the appropriate cast album cover or program.

Unfortunately this round just wasn’t as fresh as it could have been – too many shows were rehashed for my tastes (Grand Hotel, “I Want to Go to Hollywood;” Moby Dick, “A Whale of a Tale;” The Rink, “Colored Lights;” Children of Eden, “Wasteland”), decreasing the sense of discovery and wonder previous productions had imbued. Even the same songs were being rehashed, which I found particularly irritating given my feelings about Drowsy Chaperone‘s “As We Stumble Along.” However, there was a movement toward organanizing the songs in a more thematic way, which led to a pile of fun mocking the Disney enterprise (yes sure Lion King is still going wild but nobody’s crying about the unfortunate fates of Tarzan – represented by “You’ll Be in my Heart” – and the Little Mermaid, “Part of Your World” and “Under the Sea”) with new, camp versions well suited to a fringe venue (and didn’t Ashley Martin look fetching in his spotted tunic). We also had a fab disco interlude that hit Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens (“All I Need is Disco,” I forgive them for doing a repeat in this case as the musical itself is so terrible I was thrilled not to have to sit through it), Flashdance (“Gloria”) and 9 to 5 (theme song), ending with the entire cast (men included ) parading around stage in giant blonde wigs. I loved it!

The height of brilliance, though, was in their perfect sendup of Kneehigh Theater’s Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a show which I enjoyed but was so … misdirected (I think it was overpriced and overlong) that it made it only 40 some performances before closing. They ripped not just the bizarre performance of cabaret performer Meow Meow, but the entire premise of the show … in a manner that seemed to me very Forbidden Broadway-esque. It was all just so fresh it stung … and I loved it. Maybe, I am thinking, that where this show should focus is on the much more recent flops – God only knows I was expecting a mechanical pig to show up on stage any minute – and go for a performance that’s far punchier. The frequent references to another mega-flop (which I’ll keep a secret) made for a gag that kept me giggling all the way through – why not mock Greenland too, and for that matter all of the other shows that deserve a good swift kick for being expensive, badly cast, poorly thought out, and generally a waste of time? Hell, I’d sign up for that! I don’t want to discount the joy of hearing songs from Which Witch (they were great) or Batboy, but if there aren’t enough musicals to stick with the theme, I say change the theme and go for a better show.

Still, it was £14 and I had a good evening, the cast was talented, and the few songs I hated were short. Overall, this was a good evening and I do recommend it to the musical geeks out there.

(This reveiw is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, June 28th, 2011. It continues through July 2nd.)

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Review – The Seagull – Arcola Theater

June 28, 2011

Two weeks later and I find I still haven’t done a full write-up of The Arcola’s Seagull. It’s stayed with me, though, perhaps unsurprisingly given that it’s the first Chekhov I didn’t hate (as well as my first Seagull). We had, as ever, the irritating, useless dascha owners flouncing around on their country estates, being useless and indecisive and basically making me long for the Bolsheviks to come along and clear them off the face of history. Arkadina (Geraldine James), a spoiled, past-her-prime actress who wastes money to keep up appearences, is a perfect example of the Russian play character I’ve grown to loathe. And yet …

Just what has been done to make this play go into the realm of melancholy and tragedy in just the right measures to pull me along? Is it the sympathy I, now, as a middle aged woman, feel for Arkadina as she tries to hold onto her own fading glory? Is it the desperation James brings to the role, as Arkadina tramples her own self-respect to keep her younger lover Trigorin (Matt Wilkinson) at her side?

Maybe, perhaps, it’s the milieu, of actors and writers and those who wish to join their ranks: it’s one I empathize with far more than tales of poor marriage choices and bad financial managements. Konstantin (Al Weaver) is a slappably pathetic teenaged playwright who wants his actress mom’s approval, but can’t get it when she is the one who wants to be the center of attention at all times; yet he grows over the course of the play and finally seems to grasp that skill does not come without effort. Meanwhile Yolanda Kettle is deliciously tasty and dreamy as a country girl dreaming of the fame those around her have seemingly effortlessly; she has a whiff of madness even at the beginning that carries nicely through to her final scene with Konstantin. Carrying through it is an early Goth type, Masha, who wears black “in mourning for my life;” she’s unflinchingly sensible and unsentimental throughout the play and utterly funny, like a 19th century Nemi (or even a Morrisey, “I wear black on the outside/Cause black is how I feel on the inside”).

While the ensemble is quite strong, I felt that neither Weaver or Kettle actually got to the emotional depth they needed to plumb in the last act; and despite the story seeming to be so very much about Arkadina and Trigorin, they are not the impetus that drives this play. Overall, I think, this is a very fine outing and lovely in such a small space, and better than any Russian play I’ve seen before; but somewhere out there is perfection for a Seagull, and I feel strongly that this rewritten script will eventually yield that shining pearl of a play, only not quite with this cast at this time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 15th, 2011. It continues through July 16th. For a review of this performance, please see Tim Watson or (eventually) RevStan. well, actually, neither of them appear to have written about it yet, so please read Ian Foster’s.)

Review – Emperor and Galilean – National Theatre

June 13, 2011

It has been nearly 24 hours since I escaped from the Olivier Theater and the production of Emperor and Galilean being paraded in front of a loyal London theater-going audience as someone’s idea of a show worth producing and I admit I’m still scratching my head about what to say. I had to see this show as an Ibsen completist, but I was really worried given 1) its running time (3 1/2 hours, with the first act a punishing 1:50) 2) the fact that for whatever reason 150 years had gone by and no one had seen fit to produce this play. Accident … or thoughtful avoidance? It was also a play written to be read and not produced, and it preceded all of Ibsen’s great works. All in all, it had the orange and black stripes commonly associated with poisonous animals all over it. EMPEROR AND GALILEAN: DO NOT EAT*.

I went anyway, though. The plot (both overdrawn and yet incomplete, feeling a bit like the English language version of Red Cliffs) started with teenage Prince Julian (Andrew Scott) attempting to deal with the pressure both of being in line for the throne (if his uncle, Emperor Constantius – Nabil Shaban, deliciously evil – doesn’t kill him first) and of not being able to make up his mind about religion. He starts the play very Christian, wanting only to return to the hills of Cappadocia and study the bible with his friends. Later he gets into the pagan mysteries (while studying in Athens) and slowly turns away from Christianity. Skipping over a bit, he does wind up becoming emperor and convincing himself he’s being chosen for thte job by the pagan gods, whom he chooses to restore when he takes the throne (he’s not called “Julian the Apostate” for nothing). Then he takes his mojo and decides to attack Persia … and basically hallucinates himself to death.

All of this up and down is done by Andrew Scott at exactly the same tone throughout – moderately hysterical. It was sad to see him out-acted not just by all three of his best friends but also by Ian McDiarmid, playing Maximus, the mystic he hooks up with when he leaves Athens. The thing is, McDiarmid’s voice, which I couldn’t but hear as the Emperor from the Star Wars movies, just put him in a whole ‘nother level of reality when he and Scott were on the state. McDiarmid owned his role: Scott was owned by his (God I love watching the old dudes show the tyros how you do it). I lay an entire star not earned for this play at Scott’s feet; perhaps he will find his way as the show goes on, but I can’t help but feel this flawed beast should never have been let out of the stableyard.

Credit is due the National as they did not stint with this production: the entrance of Constantius is truly amazing; the many-leveled uses of the revolving stage were impressive (it’s a door! it’s a cliff!), though I felt the slaughterhouse-y thing under the church was unnecessary; the simple costuming effective; the music stirring. And there was a very enthusiastic Dionysian ritual orgy-thing at the start of act two just when you thought you had no more energy to get through until the end. Still, I’ll be clear: this show should never have seen the light of day, the National should not have blown so much money on bringing it to life (much less funding a new script), and Andrew Scott, much like Mark Hamill (as Luke Skywalker), needs to find a few more emotions. I cannot recommend this play to anyone other than hard-core Ibsen fans; all others, spare yourself the agony: here’s the Wikipedia article on Julian; read it with a bottle of wine by your side and I promise you you’ll come off far more satisfied than I did after my long and painful night at the theater watching this thing.

*Actually what you’ll want to not do is drink before this show unless you have a bladder the size of a watermelon.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 11th, 2011, at 7 PM. It runs through August 10th.)

Review – Luise Miller – Donmar Warehouse

June 12, 2011

It’s hard to figure out how to write a one hundred percent spoiler free review for Luise Miller – the play is hardly a classic (despite being 250 years old) so almost anything I write is going to be a plot reveal (for those unfamiliar with Verdi’s version). I went into this play knowing absolutely nothing about it (other than a quick giveaway about it being 18th century and German). This is, actualy, how I like to experience my plays – totally at the mercy of the playwright and whatever ride he’s going to take me on, trying to see where his hints are (“This will all end in tragedy!” usually seems a pretty solid clue), trying to outguess his twists and turns via leaps of logic (“but if he’s in love with her, too, then he will probably ….”). This is much more of a hair-raising, visceral experience, and while I know there is much to be said for seeing a show you know inside and out so you can truly judge, say, the superiority of a performance or adequacy of a given translation, I say there’s nothing that beats getting that first night’s audience experience. This is one of the reasons I avoid reading most reviews before I go see a show: I really just don’t want to know the details, I just want to know if I should or shouldn’t go! And for those of you who want that kind of review from me, I think I can tell you just enough by saying the production reminds me of The Revenger’s Tragedy meets Sorrows of Young Werther via Dangerous Liaisons, that it’s a solid, middle of the road show that is not outstanding but still entertaining, and that it’s the plot that holds the show back from greatness as I cannot really buy into a show so driven by small-town, 18th century ethics for this play any more than I could for Faust. This is the end of the spoiler-free section of this review; if you were wanting to make up your mind based on the lightest touch of information needed to do so, you now have what you need. Scurry off as I am now about to get down to the meat of the review, and I shall be telling much more than I would have wanted to have heard before I went.

Alright, is this the rest of you, the ones who don’t mind knowing more about a show before you go? Or are you perhaps among those who sat through this tragedy of comic proportions and wanted to see if your experiences matched my own? Well, read on …

Luise Miller is about a young man of noble birth (Ferdinand, Max Bennett) in love with a young woman of low birth (Luise Miller, Felicity Jones) whom he meets while taking violin lessons from her father. The play starts with thick tragedy warnings from the start, made even more alarming once young Ferdinand appears on stage, in his officer’s uniform, with innocent, virtuous, highly religious Luise and promptly appears to be telling her every line of bull in the book about how he absolutely will find a way to make their relationship work. He was laying it on so thick I was expecting Luise to promptly dance herself to death and be brought back by the Queen of the Wilis. Three characters stand in their way: his father (The Chancellor, Ben Daniels), the neighbor in love with Luise (Wurm, appropriately enough, John Light), and the king’s mistress (Lady Milford, Alex Kingston), who wants to marry Ferdinand herself. Leaving still a bit of room for surprise, I’ll say the plot does have a few twists and turns, but ends in keeping with the early expectations, with an overblown, overacted death scene that hit all the buttons if you’re feeling spiteful about all of the sap on stage.

I had some serious problems with the script for this play. A huge gap exists between the people in the world of the court (the Chancellor, Lady Milford) and the world of Luise. On Luise’s side, religion and morality are of utmost importance; at the court, it’s power and getting what you want. And, unexpectedly, it’s the manipulative court people who actually are more interesting. I’m sure Schiller meant our sympathies to be with Luise and Ferdinand, and while I felt sorry for the way their beliefs and sense of honor were used to manipulate them, it didn’t change the fact that they came off as two dimensional. This was especially bad in the case of Bennett, who, as Ferdinand, had a wide range of emotions to cover – passion, happiness, rage, jealousy – and didn’t really seem up to the task (though he did have passion-inspiring shoulders). I wondered if it was just too far removed from his personal experience for him to “get” what he was acting. As for Jones, well, she was sweet, but in her confrontation with Lady Milford she moves beyond sugary into insightful and empathetic – giving Jones more chance to show dramatic range and winning me over as a character and an actress. Sadly, both of the young’uns were weak when they were meant to be crazy … but this was during the point when the religiosity was being cranked up to my breaking point anyway so I was checking out a bit and waiting for the God talk to be over. I’m sure, though, Schiller did NOT mean for me to be humorously indifferent to Luise and Ferdinand’s suffering …. but they did both really need to do some growing up.

Overall, this play was kind of typical of the gloom and doom style I’ve come to associate with the Donmar, but without the really brilliant script to make it all amazing. Still, I walked into the night feeling a sense of joy at having seen the destruction I’d anticipated all night wreaked so thoroughly at the end, and, given that it was just past 10PM as I headed out the door, it seemed like it had been a good evening, but one that definitely called for a bit of ice cream, so off to Scoop I went for a little bit of sweet and cold to end my evening perfectly satisfied.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, June 10th, 2011. Luise Miller continues through July 30th.)

Review – Coco – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

June 9, 2011

Apologies for the delay in publishing this review: at some time after the show my program for Coco disappeared. This meant I couldn’t credit any of the cast, as Sadler’s Well’s website and the Lost Musicals websites say absolutely nothing about the brilliant cast of this (and all) shows. Dammit all, I will have to remember that when I write here, it’s not just for me, it’s for posterity, as there needs to be a record of who was working on it somewhere! But … HURRAY I found it, so nearly a week later my review is ready at last.

A musical never performed in London, written by the great Alan J Lerner, with music by Andre Previn? This kind of solid gold pedigree is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Lost Musicals, and their choice of the neglected Coco was a good one, a treat for it to finally be performed in Europe and a delight for those of us who like our songs singable and our characters unforgettable. While the concept of Coco Chanel as the center of a musical seems highly promising on its own (ooh, the clothes! ooh, the glamor!), I was fascinated that this play was actually about a woman who was old and powerful – and not the spiteful head of a family, but a businesswoman. It’s a character type I haven’t really seen a show about before.Then you put yourself in the mind of it being Katherine Hepburn, and, wow, it all just really worked, despite having a lead role that’s not really one for a singer – it was written for a woman with a forceful stage presence. And Sara Kestelman did a good job of being vibrant, passionate, bitchy, thoughtful, everything Coco needed to be – it was hard to take your eyes off of her.

I’m not one much for summarizing plots for shows in my reviews, but I’ll make an exception here due to the obscurity of the show. It’s the early 50s. Dior’s new look, all pinched waists and complex undergarments, is in. Chanel is, however you cut it, out – but she wants back in, against the advice of her lawyer Louis (Edward Petherbridge, who did a great job of being both supportive and long suffering) and assistant Pignolle (a fine comic turn by Myra Sands),- and, well, everyone else ( in the number “The World Belongs to the Young”). She throws open her salon to some models and finds a sort of “junior Coco” in Noelle (Robine Lundi), an orphan who’s been slumming in Paris as a live-in girlfriend for Georges (David Habbin). Noelle gets the modelling job, Georges says she must quit “or else;” Coco lectures Noelle about the joy of making your own money and being independent (in the song “The money rings out like freedom” … “Clink clink a-jingle! …. Oh debt where is thy sting?” and with such aphorisms as “One needs independence and not equality. Equality is a step down.”), convincing Noelle to keep the job and be her own woman. Over the course of the play, we see flashbacks to how Coco got her life to the point it is now … where she’s basically a contented woman despite being single … and watch as an interfering “assistant” Simon (Simon Butteriss, a total show stealer with his schadenfreude-driven second act song “Fiasco”) attempts to mutilate her style by adding bits and bobs and dealie-boppers to the clothes (I believe this was meant to be the designer Lanvin). She cuts Simon out, presents her collection as she wants it, then faces financial ruin as Paris decides she’s just not very fashionable. But then she’s saved by a deal with a bunch of American department stores (in the witty number “Orbachs Bloomingdale Best and Saks”) to sell her clothes in a sort of cut down, mass-market way – rather comically living up to what she says at the beginning that it’s the age when the thing to do is to follow the masses, not lead them. Noelle and Georges also get back together – he with a new-found respect for her – and the play ends on a happy note for all.

I’ve seen at least three new musicals in the last six months and the wit of this show blew them all out of the water. Previn’s songs were often short (I’m guessing due to being written for a weak voiced lead) but they were still full of hooks with great Lerner lyrics – in fact it’s a week later and I’m sitting here singing “Fiasco” to myself. And the dialogue itself had me and my friend David giggling and guffawing in a way I had not experienced in ages. “Today they think ‘chic’ is someone riding on a camel” … “Mademoiselle will never go back to work! She is too old … I mean too rich and too wise” … “Forgive me for not writing, I had nothing to do and couldn’t get around to it.” What a treat! To top it off, the show was introduced by Liz Roberts, the widow of Alan J Lerner and a piece of living history. It was just such a rich experience … oh man! What a wonderful Sunday afternoon. Anyway, once again “Lost Musicals” has delivered a wonderful entertainment: I can’t wait until Mexican Hayride!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, June 5th, 2011. The final performance will take place on Sunday, June 12th, 2011. These shows consistently sell out so I advise booking early.)

Review – Chicken Soup with Barley – Royal Court

June 7, 2011

For once, the Royal Court is doing, not a new show, but a revival, of Chicken Soup with Barley. This play, first performed in 1958, is about an East London Jewish family riding the wave from optimistic socialism to Pollyanna-ism. And based on the fact that this show has been revived and thus not to be given the slack I accord to new works, I ask, what was the point of this ill-natured, tedious show? There is actually some interest for me in watching people discuss socialism with stars in their eyes over a meal; but as this family and their friends goes from one rally to another, from proselytizing on a chair to motivating union members, I found myself wishing I could have left their party and gone to one where a conversation I was interested was happening. Maybe it was my fourth row seat; I really did feel like I was there, and I wanted to get away but was trapped by the feeling that something really interesting might happen that I’d miss if I snuck out early. More fool me.

To make it more miserable, this family really seemed to hate each other. Sarah Kahn (Samantha Spiro) spends most of the play tearing apart her good-for-nothing husband Harry (Danny Webb), and I found it painful to watch. It’s a profound lesson for her to teach her kids, Ada (Jenna Augen) and Ronnie (Tom Rosenthal), and later they jump right on the “dad is a waste of breathing room” bandwagon, telling him what he can and cannot do as if he is a child and deriding him as useless right at the dinner table. No wonder he just wants to sit alone and smoke a cigarette. I’ll give props to Spiro for her performance; she seemed very believable in her enthusiasm and unwillingness to confront harsh facts. However, Rosenthal flubbed his final scene, seemingly not able to handle the emotional transition (maybe this will clear up as the run progresses), while Augen didn’t seem very well rounded and was just silly in her first scene. Webb, however, was just astounding in a “performance of the year” kind of way as the gradually degrading Harry Kahn; but watching him erode in front of my eyes was a truly painful experience. I could not wait to see the last of the lot of them.

At the end of the evening, when I was praying for each scene to be the last, I was reminded of that Tolstoy chestnut about happy families. Sure, it’s the unhappy ones that are more interesting, but this particular brand of misery was just not my cup of tea (or bowl of soup). Give me Imelda Staunton and her accordion any day of the week; Chicken Soup with Barley is just to bitter to be enjoyable.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2011. It continues through July 9th.)

Review – A Delicate Balance – The Almeida

June 6, 2011

Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance, now some forty-five years old, shows a remarkable agelessness despite its references to topless bathing suits and households where women actually say the men run the show (rather than freely admitting the truth). Questions of social obligations, the problems of alcoholism, and fear of aging and death are just as utterly relevant today as they were when it was written. And, joyously, Albee’s unhappy family is one of the best representatives of the unclassifiable type (of endless unique instances) I’ve seen since John Gabriel Borkman. My God, when they get behind closed doors, the vitriol does pour, and it all gets so much better once the applecart is pushed over. Rather than doing so via a bunch of old family secrets a la August: Osage County, Albee does it with the rather surrealistic arrival of the lead couple’s best friends, who are fleeing some sort of unspoken terror (rather than creditors, angry neighbors, or unacknowledged children). What is this terror? Does it have something to do with senility? Is it existential dread? Are they having a bad trip? No answers are forthcoming and I found myself even more satisfied as a result. (I get the same feeling watching Pinter: the onus of responsibility is on us as an audience to figure out the play’s mysteries and Albee isn’t going to spoonfeed us an answer.)

In this one room, living room drama, we, the audience, are gifted with the vibrant presence of Imelda Staunton, playing Claire, the bad-girl sister of Agnes (Penelope Wilton). She’s a huge character: dressed in red, defending her right to drink incessantly (while not being an alcoholic), and making Agnes look every so prim as she says she has to apologize for Claire’s actions constantly. At one point she parades on stage with an accordion (very “Wecome to Hell“), deciding that as much as things have gone in the crapper it’s time to give it all a soundtrack. It’s perfect: while every other character at least tries to be nice and fit in, Claire really doesn’t care and is, in her way, the only voice of reason. I’d come and see it again for this performance alone.

Lost in her shadow is Lucy Cohu as Agnes and Tobias’s (Tim Pigott-Smith) daughter, Julia. Yes, leaving her fourth marriage is a bit of a “thing,” but Cohu doesn’t make her character very interesting. I think, really, this may be Albee’s fault, as the only real reason for this character to exist is so there is someone to blow up when Harry (Ian McElhinney) and Edna (Diana Hardcastle) announce they’re not just staying overnight but moving in. On the other hand, she is a wonderful character for being picked on, and watching Edna use social norms to reduce Agnes to shreds is just rather lovely if you’re feeling a bit mean.

Oddly, the show starts of so marshmallowy, with Wilton and Pigott-Smith struggling to sound American as they discuss absolutely nothing, that it’s hard to imagine it’s every going to go anywhere. And there are a million meanders (“longeurs” for the more hoity) as the characters talk about senility, AA meetings, and pet cats: really, they have very boring lives. But then there is much more to these late middle aged folks than meets the eye: a need for belonging, a desire to destroy, the desolation of abandonment after a child’s death. This is, in fact, the very kind of play it took the sixties to bring about: a show about people who have trained themselves to appear utterly dead inside finally confronting the reality of the passage of their meat machines through the soon-to-end experience called life and making us feel how it felt to get there and how scary it is to be looking at the end. It’s what we’re all going to have to do, even though we all spend so much time pretending not to notice.

Small complaint: amid the perfect set, the lighting was not right for the “car headlights” cue (always should be two lights, not a bar of light) and the “early October morning” in New England light was too bright and not the right color. Guy Hoare, I’m looking at you. Autumn light is very thin. Fix it if you get a transfer.

Overall, this is just a stupendous script with a strong cast, and even in my crappy, restricted view £8 seat (1/4 of the stage not visible), I loved it fron start to finish (well, from about 10 minutes in until the finish). It’s a great representative of the kind of realistic theater London does perfectly. Unsurprisingly, it is now sold out, but I advise making the effort to get returns for Staunton’s scintillating performance alone.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, June 3rd, 2011. It runs until July 2nd. Be advised the show runs a full three hours so easy on the pre-show drinking – that said, there’s so much alcohol consumed on stage you’ll find it hard to leave without tossing one down.)

Review – London Road – National Theatre Cottlesloe

June 5, 2011

A musical written using interviews with regular people as the book, with the neighbor’s response to the murder of five women working on London Road as the topic? To me, this sounded like the epitome of theater I’d rather skip. I figured it was likely to be preachy and reverent or nauseatingly simplistic. Yet, despite this, the West End Whingers said it was amazing and tweeter after tweeter said it as a must see. What was I missing out on? Sensing a sell-out and worrying about missing out on the event of the year, I hurriedly booked some tickets a few weeks after opening and sat down to wait my turn.

While not exactly simplistic, I have to say this show was in some ways nauseating. My previous theatrical outing had been Betty Blue Eyes, and I was shocked to see the residents of Ipswich displaying far less sympathy for the murder victims than the characters in Betty Blue Eyes did for a pig. Again and again they said how much more pleasant it was now that the sex workers were gone, with occasional brief mentions of “a blessing in disguise” and one woman finally saying if she met the murderer she’d “shake his hand.” While no one seemed bothered by just how the women were earning a living, they mentioned that they were rude and threatening, indiscreet, and basically dirtied up the place. Much like the police cordon and media spotlight, they were an inconvenience – but nothing a few hanging baskets couldn’t easily replace. Every word of sympathy came out sounding like “and this is what we kind of feel we have to say” – but I heard little reference to the children or families the victims have, and over the entire show the names of the women were said maybe twice. The playwright meant to focus on the residents, and I think her choice for a narrow focus might have helped the play, but I couldn’t help feel an implicit acceptance of the residents’ attitudes. The women were throwaways, creatures who existed in essence because they set a plot rolling that allowed this play to take place. Ignoring them could safely be done, with the milksop of a charity collection at the end of the night to help us all reassure ourselves that we aren’t really lacking in sympathy – as long as these eyesores keep themselves out of sight.

That said, there was a lot to think about in this not-quite-a-musical, with its impressive narrative through-line (I was never once bored, like I was in Love Story and, I admit, Umbrellas of Cherbourg). I was particularly impressed by the documentation of the town’s descent into a hysteria – the women questioning if every man is the murderer (the men participate in this, too); the terror caused by lack of security (although someone wryly adds that it’s all pretty silly given that unless you’re actually a prostitute you don’t seem to be in any danger); the media circus and the lynch mob mentality after Steve Wright was caught (rather surprising how angry people were given that some saw him performing a public service, like the dog catcher). But in the London Road residents’ parts, as they go on about their efforts to clean up their street, I felt this “elephant in the room” moment rather reminiscent of Proust’s great scene as Charles Swann attempts to say goodbye to his lifelong friends the Guermantes in the way the beautification committee members chirpily avoid discussing the deaths that motivated their efforts. Ah, the banality of everyday life, and the willful avoidance of the truth of the ends we all will all meet; is this not just the core of suburban existence? It was almost as depressing as the ugly attitudes underneath the potted petunias.

Despite my real engagement while watching this show, I can’t say it deserved its praise as a musical: the tweedly Phillip Glass-like score (not a compliment) didn’t have any sort of melody at all. And while London Road is a very interesting social document – rather like a master’s thesis in urban anthropology – I didn’t really feel as a play it’s going to have a long life, as this smallish mass-murder fades from the public consciousness. However, there is no denying the theater was packed to the rafters and on a Wednesday night there were some 15 people queueing for seats. Perhaps given the popularity of this show the National ought to give up its current focus on plays about climate change; it seems that to fill the houses earnest educational shows are out and serial killers are the rage. I’m guessing a revival of Silence: the Musical should come next and then maybe something about the man in Vancouver who lured streetwalkers to his slaughterhouse before killing them. At least in England the police treated the murders (if not the disappearances) of Gemma Adams and Tania Nicol as a crime that needed to be pursued instantly rather than letting them continue to be picked off one by one for five years; and in that, at least, London Road shows a tiniest candle of hope in a world lacking in empathy.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, June 1st, 2011. It has been extended through August 27th so now if you want to see it there is hope.)

Review – Betty Blue Eyes – Novello Theater

June 1, 2011

Almost two months after it opened, I realize it’s a little late to be getting on the Betty Blue Eyes bandwagon. The musical opened April 14th, leading to a rash(er) of porcine punnerage in the printed press, but failing to grab my attention as anything but the “musical about a pig.” I waffled as the online reviews – tweeters and bloggers – were a mix of sizzle and roast. The Whingers were apathetic, while Ought to be Clowns said it was destined for greatness. Who was I to believe? Was I more worried about not maximizing my experience by getting a too-cheap seat, or wasting my time? The deciding vote of yes was ultimately caused by a blend of a freebie copy of the soundtrack (my God, real songs! with lyrics!) and the rather disturbing news that a Saturday night show the first week of May was half empty, meaning the timing of its closing was likely to be sooner rather than later. My goodness; it’s one thing to skip a bad show, but what if this closed unexpectedly and I’d actually missed a work of genius? Thanks to the (now generous half price stall seats) ticket offers at the TKTS booth, I was able to make my mind up myself without busting the bank. And I already knew the music would be good.

So, let’s see. Betty Blue Eyes, for those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar with the movie A Private Function, is a musical about the people involved with raising a pig that’s going to be served as the main course of a dinner for the glitterati of a small village. It’s set in post-war “austerity Britain” (which I know only as a counter-setting for some of Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing). Though the song writing wasn’t genius, it was heads and shoulders above Love Story and most of the long-running, popular modern musicals. Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith, playing the married couple (Joyce and Gilbert) at the heart of the show, were competent and businesslike: very believably middle-aged people whose lives hadn’t really gone where they thought they would. They were however, completely upstaged, not by the animatronic pig, but by “grandma” – Ann Emery – whose comic turn in the “Pig! No Pig” scene jumped the farce shark and went into some kind of higher comedic plane of unreality.

And, well, the dancing was good, but then there were those two empty balconies staring at me, seemingly draining the energy and enthusiasm out of the performers, and I couldn’t help but wonder, what wasn’t happening here? Why was this charming, if imperfect show looking like it was doomed to close at the end of the summer if not earlier?

I think there are two issue the show can’t overcome. First, Joyce is just not a sympathetic lead. She’s nasty to her husband, she’s a social climber, she complains a lot. She’s not someone you really enjoy have taking center stage. Even though she has two numbers that should cause the audience to connect with her (“Nobody” and “Dance at the Primrose Ballroom”), I found it impossible to feel sorry for someone who was so concerned about what other people thought about her. Yeah, sure, life is disappointing, but why not just get on with it and enjoy what you have? She couldn’t do it and as a result she had become bitter. Maybe there was a comedy figure hiding in there, but … I never really cheered her on.

The second thing is, well, this is a play about a group of people who are fairly enthusiastic about killing an animal that we, the audience, DO empathize with. It’s no longer the days when most everyone could, at least, kill their own chickens. And, well, the scene where the set is flooded with red light and Betty starts to scream is just NOT something I’d be wanting to take the kids to. In fact, I’d have questions about going myself. It set a really creepy, horrifying tone that the comic ending could just not shake off. And I think, really, as people are walking out of the theater, this feeling of “my God, killing animals is just really very unpleasant and noisy” is going to stick a lot more than the memories of the very funny paper villain (the Meat Inspector).

Overall I think this was a good musical – great hummable songs, lots of funny scenes, good dance numbers, and a real celebration of a lot of the fun quirky things about English society that I think the summer crowds would enjoy. But it’s just not pulling in the punters. If you like classic musicals, you will probably enjoy Betty Blue Eyes, and I advise you not to be too cocky in waiting to book as half full houses on a Saturday night are something no show can endure for long.

(This review is for a show seen on Saturday, May 14th, 2011. According to Delfont Mackintosh it’s currently booking until January 28, 2012, but I wouldn’t wait that long if you’re at all interested.)