Archive for July 19th, 2011

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.)

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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.)