Archive for July, 2011

Review – English National Ballet Roland Petit program with Vasiliev – and Preview, Mariinsky ballet 2011 London visit

July 25, 2011

This is shaping up to be a fantastic summer for dance in London. Not only do we have a huge, three week visit from the Mariinsky ballet, we’ve got a wonderful end of season program of ballets by Roland Petit from English National Ballet and the return of Carlos Acosta at the London Coliseum. All of this follows the Vasiliev/Osipova “Romeo and Juliet” week (also at the Coli). Our cups runneth over even if our wallets do not!

I’m afraid I said no to the Vasiliev/Osipova Romeo and Juliet (it sounded like a disappointing staging), but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Vasiliev in action when I heard that he was going to perform in “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” (on Friday, July 22nd) as an homage to the late master. The piece itself is very high-impact, all rolling eyes and death-defying leaps, with a clear, emotional narrative (tortured young man commits suicide) greatly enhanced by its stylized setting. And Vasiliev left me (and others) gasping in amazement; he took a piece that could have been pure schlock, whizzed up the sex appeal (with help from the hair-raising Jia Zhang), met the passion and overblown emotions shamelessly, and took us on a wild ride where the walls flying away to reveal the desolation of a Parisian rooftop seemed only too perfect – like we’d all just had a fantastic dream where death is a beautiful woman in yellow who caresses us with her arched foot before kicking us away. Oh man. It was fifteen minutes on a rollercoaster but it could have been fifty or five, time just stood still much like Vasiliev seemed to do when he hovered in the air like Trinity about to take on the cyborg police force in The Matrix.

The night opened with L’Arlésienne, another tight tale of love and death and madness, with a stylized corps that reminded me of a Greek chorus commenting on Frédéri (Esteban Berlanga) and Vivette’s (Erina Takahashi) relationship. While the two of them danced together beautifully (and mad Frédéri had great solos), I was entranced my the movement of everyone else on stage, forming lines and circling and lifting the principles. Despite enjoying this greatly, I still ran out before Carmen came on – I would very much like to see more Petit but time was not on my side.

And with this lack of time and money I’ve had to make some decisions about what else I can see this summer. I don’t have a budget that can afford seeing multiples of shows going for £45 a pop; so though I’d love to compare multiple casts for the Mariinsky, it’s one viewing per show. And Eric Taub’s slaughtering of Anna Karenina meant it was off the short list. So, sadly, is Carlos Acosta’s show: I found last year’s show painful and announcing it was basically being remounted for this year meant I felt positive about saving the pennies for a little more Mariinsky. I blew my ballet savings on stalls seating for Swan Lake, but got some help with the Balanchine/Robbins mixed rep thanks to a nicely timed deal on Lastminute.com. And this means I’m seeing basically one of everything – maybe not as much as some but enough to ensure a lovely, dance-filled summer.

Here’s my schedule for the Mariinsky’s visit. What are you going to see? If you’re a ballet fan and you’d like to meet up, speak up and I’ll try to find you during the interval.

26 July (Tuesday): Swan Lake
1 August (Monday): Homage to Fokine
2 August (Tuesday): Don Quixote
4 August (Thursday): Balanchine/Robbins program
12 August (Friday): La Bayadere

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Deal – half price tickets for Mariinsky’s Balanchine/Robbins program at Royal Opera House

July 21, 2011

Their Swan Lake has sold out, but the Mariinsky Ballet can still be enjoyed – at half price! – with a great deal from Lastminute.com on their Balanchine/Robbins program. It’s the same awesome dancers doing work by two of the best choreographers of the 20th Century – well, THE best choreographer and then another top one. Show details (from the Royal Opera House website) are as follows: Scotch Symphony and Ballet Imperial, Balanchine: Into the Night, Robbins. Dancers include Evgenia Obraztsova and Uliana Lopatkina on Thursday and Anastasia Matvienko on Friday. Now, LastMinute is ONLY selling the “top price” tickets (at £49 and £46) … but when they’re as cheap as the balcony seats were, how can you say no? Anyway, go to Lastminute.com to buy, and remember, when they sell out, they will be sold out!

Review – Edgar and Annabel – Double Feature at National Theater’s Paintbox

July 20, 2011

The last week has left me in doubt that I could even enjoy the theater, given that I had seen three turkeys in a row. (Certainly I am accused of not liking theater at all by some folks who read my blog, as well as not having friends or a life.) Still, I glumly drug myself off to the National, hoping the tickets I’d bought somewhat at random for this thing called the “Double Feature” would pay off. I hadn’t really researched what the show(s) was(were) about, but had just grabbed a ticket so I could go with a friend … the exact kind of thoughtless enthusiasm that had landed me in the Lyttleton for the never ending pain that was A Woman Killed with Kindness. The show started at 8:15, I was nearly late, there was no time for a program or anything as I ran in the door somewhere back of the Cottlesloe and was sat down in the darkening theater …

To experience one of the best shows I’d seen in 2011. Edgar and Annabel immediately rocketed into my top ten of the year (#3 after Propellor’s Richard III and left me feeling like I’d gotten my money’s worth out of my ticket (£20) without even bothering to see the other show on the bill (The Swan – sadly to see both meant I wasn’t going to leave until 11 PM and I just couldn’t handle another night without enough sleep). It reminded me rather a lot of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions, another play about a horribly dystopian future where there is no limit to the amount of surveillance that takes place and no consideration for the yearnings of the human spirit. I feel like I can’t say much about the play without ruining the buckets of surprises it had in store, from the minute Annabel (Kirsty Bushell, I’m guessing) yelps as she sees Edgar (Trystan Gravelle, I believe) walk in in the door … but I was on tenterhooks throughout and really had no idea where it would go. To say it was like 1984 makes it sound too simple and preachy … but it was absolutely relevant to our modern society with its obsession with security and “keeping safe.” And about politics, not “this party is good and that party is bad” but what it means to be in a politicized society.

Anyway, this show was just GREAT great great and while I didn’t stay for the second show (report was that it was good, but not as good), I wholeheartedly encourage YOU to go see this. I can’t imagine how you will be disappointed. Sam Holcroft: thanks for making me feel good about supporting new writing unreservedly.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, July 19th, 2011. It continues through September 10th.)

Review – the Uncommercial Traveller – Punchdrunk and Arcola Theaters

July 19, 2011

So. Punchdrunk and the Arcola hook up. Their baby is as follows: “Inspired by The Uncommercial Traveller, Charles Dickens account of his wanderings around London, Arcola Theatre and Punchdrunk Enrichment present an unexpected encounter in a surprising East London location.”

Inspired by wanderings? And there is “a headphone journey?” So a promenade, eh?

Well, once again I totally missed the boat in interpreting what kind of show I was going to see, as I was certain we were going to actually walk around the neighborhood (right next to the Geffrye as it turned out) and packed a raincoat and hat in preparation. I was excited about seeing the neighborhood through Dickens’ eyes! And then on the day of we had the kind of torrential downpour I associate more with Tropical Storm Insert Name here, and when I did finally make it to the location (late due to rain delays) I was THRILLED that it turned out all we were going to do was sit in a darkened room with a few actors and have a little chat.

The atmosphere was very cool in the space: a room lit by dim lamps, with 5 people in costume sat at tables. I saw a baldish man, a woman who looked like a fortune teller, and a lady well past her prime hiding behind a fan. We were ushered to our seats (in the People’s Soup Collective or something like this) by the proprietress, who evenly distributed us around the various actors. When she disappeared, the actors began to engage us. I only got my experience, which I will relate here: a woman in her mid fifties, wearing a tattered wedding dress (not very appropriate for any Victorian era but that’s community theater for you) and with a bouquet of dried roses, introduced herself (“Millie Perkins”) and told the three of us how she’d come to London. She was poor but honest, working as a seamstress in the soup shop and living downstairs.

At this point we were interrupted by the proprietress, who handed out cups with soup in them to all present. It was vegetable, and very nice too. Millie continued to tell us about her boyfriend, Robert, and how he was going to be married to her tomorrow “but ‘e ‘asn’t been seen in six weeks.” I foresaw difficulties ahead for Millie’s romantic life. Millie, meanwhile, asked us about our sweethearts and doled out advice on how to catch and keep a man.

Then the lights went dark briefly and, when they rose, the actors one by one took groups of people through the building and downstairs. The interior was all very atmospheric: I wondered if Victorian restaurants (for the poor) were always poorly lit, or if they would have had big windows. Meanwhile, the downstairs was split up by hanging curtains, very much reminding me of what I’d read about housing conditions in the London slums in the late Victorian era. We were taken into Millie’s room and sat on her bed while she went through her things. At one point a piercing scream rent the air – “Oh, ignore that woman, she does it all the time” – and then, to no suprise, we had the denouement that Robert would not be attending the wedding via a little note Millie gave to me to read. She also screamed, then told us to leave her alone. We exited via a different back door, going past a man who sat sharpening knives menacingly.

All told I actually really enjoyed my little adventure despite it being not what I expected. Even though Millie’s story was slim, the atmosphere was great, the price was right (£6), and at 20 minutes it was like a little appetizer that whet the appetite rather than outstaying its welcome. My companion, Fausterella, also enjoyed it, and like me enjoyed catching up with other people about what they had seen (sadly neither of us got the Sweeney Todd style butcher man). However, Gareth James, who went on the same day, felt quite differently about it all. I don’t feel ultimately like I got much Dickens out of it, but I am still intrigued by the walk described on the Arcola’s website and will probably do it in my free time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, July 17th, 2011. This was the last day of this show.)

Review – Mexican Hayride – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells 2011 series

July 19, 2011

This is my second year of going to the Lost Musicals series at Sadler’s Wells. It’s been a pretty successful batch of shows for me, with musicality, lyrics, and plotlines that leave most of the West End’s output in the dust. However, just as in new shows, it’s not too surpising that the occasional flop (by modern standards) will come in amongst the gold nuggets, and for the 2011 series, Mexican Hayride is the red haired stepchild of the year.

So about Mexican Hayride. First of all, this show has almost nothing to do with the movie (if you were wondering), and, to be honest, it doesn’t have all that much to do with Mexico, either. An American (Joe Bascom, played by Michael Roberts) joins the expat crowd at a bullring and inadvertently catches the ear that Madame Matador “Montana” (Louise Gold) throws into the audience, thereby earning a week of being “The American Friend” (or something like that) and being feted by the local populace. However, Bascom is trying to keep a low profile, as he’s left the states after running a numbers racket and has got a wife (Montana’s sister Lillian, Lana Green) hot on his heels. That doesn’t keep him from trying to get back into the business when he sees an opportunity. Most of the show, then, revolves around Bascom being chased, either by the girls he wants (a great excuse for the song “Girls”) or the law, which he wishes to avoid. Scenes are set on a boat on the lake (with mariachis), at a bullring, at a hotel, and at a gas station … and while there’s a lot of motion there just isn’t a lot of plot.

I’m actually unfamiliar with most of the musicals that appeared during the 20s, 30s, and 40s because so very many of them were made and history has rather nicely weeded out a lot of the chaff. We’ve moved away from the screwball comedy powered by known stars toward shows driven by plot with songs that illuminate character as well as action. I had a peep at the old way of doing things when I saw Drowsy Chaperone, a loving spoof of this style and a show which I enjoyed tremendously. So when I read the description of Mexican Hayride, I thought “Oh! Here we have crooks on the lam disguised as tortilla vendors, an American female matador, and an angry wife looking for her shyster husband! Maybe they can even fit in a monkey! And Cole Porter wrote the songs, awesome!”

Awesome it was not, but rather directionless and thin on the ground, so much so that in the latter half of the first act I could no longer keep my focus and found myself incapable of keeping my eyes open. The woman next to me was already dozing hard enough to jab her elbow into my leg, and later I found two others in my group of four had fought a losing battle with the Sandman. I know I saw all of the act, but I don’t remember much of scenes four and five anymore – oh, for a stalls-side tea delivery!

What’s a shame about this show is that there were a pile of really good performances attempting to claw their way through the nonexistent plot. Louise Gold was as wonderful and warm as Montana she had been in Darling of the Day, and in the central role of Joe Bascom, Michael Roberts cranked up the silly and did all sorts of eyebrow-waggling and mugging that were needed to accompany his many bad jokes (frequently about boobs).
Wendy Ferguson as Lolita Cantine had a lovely turn performing “Sing to Me Guitar,” showing off a nice set of classically trained pipes, and had comedic timing that shone throughout the show.

But … but … my funny bone just isn’t tickled by hammy acting or crude humor. But after the interval, things took a real turn southward as 60 years of social progress vanished in a flip of a serape. Forget mere sexual innuendo: we now had “lazy Mexicans” (yes they all sleep during the siesta, at work, on the floor, and they won’t do anything because they are sleeping), “red Indians” (they make tomahawk moves wth their arms and dance in a circle), and a “squaw and papoose” selling tortillas (which I think Herbert or Dorothy Fields got confused with tacos). My companions and I turned and stared at each other with our mouths open: was this for real? Was this really what they used to do back in the 40s? While in the context of a historically accurate remount of a show it kind of made sense, we three were shocked by this painful racism played for comedy. Wow. We are all just children of a very different era.

While I could forgive this (only in context, not as a full-blown remount), it doesn’t detract from the fact that the songs also seem generally second rate, some stuff Porter glued together from pieces of his back catalogue (I swear “Abracadabra” was a completely different song from another musical with just a different word in the chorus). Supposedly he cut several other songs from this musical between its debut in Boston and its Broadway opening (January 1944), and while I’m sorry to have lost “Tequila,” I’m more sorry that a bit more plot wasn’t added in, Given the fact this show was never produced in London, I think it may just be a relic of its times, less of a misplaced golden oldie and more of a rightfully out-to-pasture oldster. If you’ve got tickets for the series, do make sure you have an espresso before you go in and then put your 1940s blinders on during the interval; otherwise, I’m afraid there just isn’t enough charm in this show to carry the evening.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, July 17th, 2011. It continues on Sundays through August 7th.)

Review – A Woman Killed with Kindness – National Theater

July 13, 2011

Walking out of the National after Tuesday night’s preview of A Woman Killed with Kindness, one question was foremost in my mind: what the hell did director Katie Mitchell think she was doing? Why revive this weak member of the revenge-tragedy era (1607) of plays in the first place, and why stage it so the cast spend a quarter of their time talking to the set and another quarter making so much noise moving furniture and dishware that the dialogue is incomprehensible? Sat in row Q of the stalls, I could see all of the elaborately filled stage (two houses, two stories each, two staircases, and more doors than an Escher print), but for the first ten minutes about all I heard was “bride,” “cut the cake,” and “one thousand pounds” (in close proximity to the words “hawk” and “hounds”). Then the pretty lady in white (Anne Frankford, Liz White) was led upstairs by her husband (John Frankford, Paul Ready), to shortly come down limping and clutching her bloody crotch. Good God. I might have asked where we were going, but frankly I didn’t understand how we’d even got to where we were.

As a positive note, my inability to hear so much of the dialogue (a problem I heard other people discussing as they left the Lyttleton) meant that I was in a state of dramatic tension throughout, as everything I did see happening in this 2:10 (no interval) production was done in a state of isolation that left me completely unable to guess what was going to happen next. It was rather like having one of those amnesia problems that leaves your short term memory destroyed. The brother sent to jail (Sir Charles Mountford, Leo Bill), would he come back? His sister, depressed and prone to pulling a rifle on housebreakers (Susan, Sandy McDade), what was her motivation in life in general? Who was the guy who had the crush on her? Who was the guy who kept lending her brother money? Were they the same person? What did they really have in common with the developing menage a trois next door?

The one point of sanity in this whole show was Frankford’s footman (Nicholas, Gawn Grainger), who invariably spoke clearly enough that I could hear him all the way in the back of the stalls. It was a wonderful example of the skill a truly experienced actor brings to the stage. To make it better, he seemed to get all of the good lines, including the one during the card game, where he suggests the adulterous couple (and the cuckolded husband) play “between the sheets” (“knave out of doors” in the original script). This whole scene was a riot of double entendre, with no need to resort to the crude hip-thrusting that’s made many a Shakespearean play fall flat (ba dum tish) in my eyes. I considered it the highlight of the play, far better than the maudlin death scene that ended the show, which was made even more ridiculous by a phone going off playing “The Grenadier’s March” about two minutes before the last breath was drawn. People in the audience laughed when “the woman”‘s head fell; I can’t help but think it was in grateful relief for us, too, being set free of our imprisonment. This show was the low point of the year so far for me, and I only stayed through to the end so I could report back definitively on whether or not it redeemed itself at the end. In short: no. Avoid at all costs. Accept a loss on the ticket if you can’t return it; your time must be more precious than this.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011. It officially opens July 19th. You have been warned. The National website describes this play as “fast-moving, frightening and erotic.” The first, at least, is true, but by 40 minutes in you will feel like the clock has stopped and it’s all just one long never ending string of unconnected scenes until you can run out of the theater into the night. For a deliciously cutting analysis of it all, may I recommend the West End Whinger’s mocu-interview review.)

A little variety: penne with lemon and walnuts

July 13, 2011

I know you were expecting another review but I’m going to take a break and share this awesome recipe I made tonight BECAUSE IT IS SO GOOD. I’ll try to get a review up later. But seriously, this is awesome. And it has a story.

While I was in the Palermo in April, I was washing my hands in the bathroom of the Monreale cathedral, and I happened to look at the paper towel I was wiping my hands on. In the haze of my lack of Italian, I noticed that the thing I was washing my hands on actually had a recipe on it, and as I crumpled the wet piece of paper up and tossed it in the garbage, it registered that it actually looked like it might have been something tasty. I walked out the door and had a think, then turned around and started burrowing through the pile of paper towels (all lovingly torn apart into individual squares, presumably to reduce waste) trying to find the recipe. I did (several sheets down), and it miraculously made it home with me without being thrown away again and has spent the last two months on my refrigerator door. Tonight I broke it in, and, as I hoped, it is a thing of genius, basically a pesto made with lemon. This version is for two.

Zest of one lemon
A fistful of parsley, chopped
4-5 tablespoons of walnuts, chopped
a quarter cup of grated parmesan
Chunky pasta for two
Salt, pepper, oil

Mix the top four ingredients together, add salt and pepper to taste, and enough oil to make it a bit more paste-like. Cook your pasta and give it a quick dressing of oil; then add the lemon/parsley mix and stir. INSTANT WOW. You’re welcome.

Review – Toad – Bad Physics at Southwark Playhouse

July 11, 2011

I am fairly new to all of this “Wind in the Willows” hoopla, as I just read the book last summer. Previously I’d seen a staged version (15 years back), the Disney movie (30 years back) and ridden “Mr Toad’s Wild Ride” at Disneyland. But the story of Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Toad are currently very fresh in my mind, with bonus points for Kenneth Grahame’s evocation of a lovely England of not so long ago (that brought to mind Tolkein’s fictionalization of same at Hobbitown). The description of this new adaptation (“Toad”) by Bad Physics (recently of the lovely Sunday Morning at the Center of the World) got me very excited: “In the unknown depths of The Vault, Southwark Playhouse, you’ll be thrust into a dark, dangerous but impossibly exciting world, and into the heart of an adventure. More than an audience, you’ll become part of the Wild Wood itself as you join our heroes for car crashes, prison breaks, a testing of friendships and a battle of honour – with menacing Weasels hiding round every corner, ready to pounce.”

Let’s re-read this: thrust into a world. Part of the Wild Wood itself. Join our heroes. Weasels hiding around every corner. IS IT NO SURPRISE I THOUGHT THIS WAS A PROMENADE PERFORMANCE?

I was really, really excited about this show. But it was just a play, and a very small play at that. I thought we were going to be racing through the tunnels of Badger’s house and leaping out into Toad Hall, and instead we sat there and looked at a horrible, tacky, inappropriate set that was supposed to be Badger’s house while utterly nonthreatening carnivores lurked unmeanacingly outside. I thought we were going to be racing through shadowy forests and dodging stoats; instead, we got to watch a stoat (Mark Conway) method acting on a Twister board. And while I could accept making the whole plot about the carnivores tempting Toad to get him into trouble, the ending was as false to the story as if Romeo and Juliet had lived. Toad does not shake hands with Weasel (Ben Neale) and walk off as pals at the end of this play. Really, What The F**k.

Despite my total misunderstanding about what Bad Physics were going to put on and genuine disappointment at what was presented, I will give props to Dan Starkey, who was a magnificent Toad and well cast in the role. However, he couldn’t overcome the fact that I was bored enough to check my watch a mere 55 minutes into a 75 minute show. This script is just not on and time dragged while I sat in the uncomfortable chairs of the vaults. While I want to say something nice, ultimately, “At least I only paid 8 quid” is not much of a compliment. Perhaps this is how some parents want their kids to see the world but for me the ending was a final bad taste after a night that had left me struggling. Bah. I apologized to my friends and slunk back to my own little burrow thinking of how I WISHED this play had been done.

(This review is for a performance that took lace on Monday, Juy 11th, 2011. It runs through July 30th.)

Spoiler-free review – Ghost the Musical – Picadilly Theater

July 5, 2011

I was sure I was the only person in London who had not seen Ghost, and while I’m sure that’s not exactly true, I think it’s important that I write a review for those people out there who have not seen the movie, so that they can approach it with the kind of open-mindedness that I had when I went to the show. I therefore pledge that in this review I will give away no plot points you can’t figure out just from looking at the poster, because I believe it’s fun to go to a show and not know what is going to happen already. (I’ll do a more detailed review with plenty of info about the plot later for you aficionados.)

Right. So … Ghost is a musical … love is very important in it … and there is a ghost! (I don’t want to say who the ghost is because I didn’t even know THAT much when I went.) It’s set in New York, and while the movie was in 1990, the stage version seems pretty appropriate to now, with mild updating such as people using cell phones and digital cameras all of the time. I had some problems with some of the office scenes as the costuming was too London-like, but the subways and streets of Brooklyn were all done really well. I also didn’t have a single accent bobble, probably the first time I’ve seen a show set in America played by a (partially) English cast where I didn’t cringe at misprounounced vowels.

While I found the musical part of this show not really my cup of tea (the lyrics were just terribly simplistic and the tunes were all forgettable – a great vice like Caissie Levy has cannot fix this problem), the story itself was actually very compelling. I was actually on the edge of my seat during the first act and found myself really wondering what act two was going to bring – something which very rarely happens to me. The themes of love, sadness, revenge, loneliness, and regret transcended the “this is a movie adaptation that we can now convince people to pay people to watch on stage” and made for something which I think was much more universally appealing. In addition, there were GREAT special effects, which left me and my group of friends scratching our heads in a “how did they do it kind of way.” While I would never want to see a show for the effects, the important thing for this is that they were all done so quietly and seamlessly that it allowed the “magic” to happen and for you/me (“the audience”) to just enjoy the story that was happening without having that grumbly let-down of “did you see the mirror under the land speeder just then.” In fact, though, the special effects were SO good that I’m recommending it to two lighting designers as an excellent example of state-of-the-art design.

While I would have voted for stronger songs, I can’t deny that this show was enjoyable and that the audience seemed to have a really fantastic time – crying (for real!) at the sad parts, standing and cheering at the end. And I thought it was a good night out. Overall I’m predicting this show will be successful, and if you’re looking for a good evening with your girlfriends or out of town guests, this is a very good example of what you can do with a solid budget and a top quality cast. It’ll be running for a long time, I’m sure. Enjoy!

(This review is for a preview that took place on Monday, July fourth, 2011. Official opening is July 19th.)