Archive for November, 2011

Review – Reasons to Be Pretty – Almeida Theater

November 28, 2011

Neil LaBute has really been impressing me with his play writing style. From the first show of his I saw (Fat Pig) to In A Dark Dark House, he’s managed to capture both the natural way in which modern people speak and also the horrible way people lie to themselves and others. It the kind of conundrum I really like to watch play out on stage, and for this reason I was excited to see Reasons to Be Pretty when I saw it was coming to the Almeida.

Reasons to be Pretty is about a normal Joe (or Greg – Tom Burke) and the people he works with, and his attempts to navigate the turbulent waters of cross-gender communication. Or so I thought as the show started and Greg was going toe to toe with his girlfriend Steph (the amazing Sian Brooke), whom he has just vilely insulted. Or has he? When the words are finally extracted from his mouth – to much disgust from Steph – you have to wonder Just what is she flipping out about? or, alternately, How does he not get how offensive that was? Or, actually, you should be thinking both, wondering Why does that one sentence seem so different from opposite sides of the bedroom?

To be honest (although I loved the fight scene), I worried at this point that the play was going to be a big boring “And now the clumsy man learns to have some sympathy for poor little sensitive women with our horribly polluted brains” with a cutesy happy ending. This feeling was only compounded by the extreme asshattery of Greg’s best friend, an egotistical asshole who says one thing in front of his friend and another when is pregnant wife/girlfriend is around. Said wife (who works at the same place as the two men) is supposedly hot (which is why friend stays with her) but also appears stunningly ignorant and self-righteous. In fact, as a couple they’re two of the most unappealing characters I’ve seen on stage in ages. You can only assume they’re there as a foil for Greg’s “journey of self discovery,” although how he’s ever going to get a word of sympathy out of either of them is a mystery.

But LaBute doesn’t go for this obvious story. Instead, he starts digging much deeper, into the nature of friendship and the rules that tie people together. We also get a serious examination of the rules Greg has written for himself, and even though he comes off initially like a checked-out loser, when he gets to a crisis point (more than once!) where his values and his actions come into conflict, he manages to execute flying paradigm shifts that would do credit to a cat being dropped into a bathtub. You can practically see him morphing into a vertebrate mid-scene.

At the end of this show, I came away with two major wows (other than the fact it was overall awesome): the set, which was basically a rotating steel packing container with sides that flipped down to create different rooms; and Sian Brooke as an actress, who I’ve now seen in three productions in one year, two of which totally (and successfully) hung on her emotional range to convey a deeply troubled character. And there was a third minor wow: this show is the first time since I’ve been in England that I didn’t catch a single bobble in the accents of the characters. I was actually surprised to find they were all English – I thought the way they spoke was a bit stilted, but I thought it was because they were Californians trying to sound like they were from Jersey. In fact, the whole effect, of watching an American play set in America showing (not at their best) American people actually made me a bit homesick. On the other hand, I’m not the least bit sorry that I’m not having to come home to any of the characters this play was about; but the fact LaBute created four people who seemed real enough to have a life before and after the show (I wound up arguing about how Greg and Steph ever got together in the first place with the people I went with) is a sign of a really well-written show. It’s on for six more weeks; if you value new writing and solid story telling, go see it.

(This review is for a performance seen on Saturday, November 19th, 2011. Apparently there is a TV celebrity in the cast but as I did not recognize her when I was watching the show I’m not going to say who she was though she did a completely fine job in the role of “the pregnant girlfriend.” However, I feel like her casting is responsible for the show being substantially sold out so I’m going to try to encourage people to go because it’s an awesome show rather than feeding any further interest due to celeb casting. Also, while Siân Brooke is generally amazing, I think it’s time for her to play someone rich, or at least middle class, just for variety’s sake.)

Review – Matilda the Musical – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Cambridge Theatre

November 24, 2011

Last winter, the raves in the Twittersphere were unanimous: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda was a real winner. “That’s great,” I thought, “it’s always good for a new musical to be birthed and loved.” Stratford isn’t normally an affordable venue for me to visit (only really being suited to weekend matinees as the distance otherwise requires a hotel), but it hardly mattered because by the time I had heard about it, it was already sold out.

It was thus a great pleasure when I heard that Matilda was coming to London. I am naturally suspicious of musicals with lots of children in them, but since it was based on a story by Roald Dahl, I figured the sugar level was bound to be low while the darkness would be high. I had some luck with a preview ticket offer – figuring it had already had a solid run in Stratford, in my mind the early London shows would still be high quality. As it turned out, I wound up attending on press night, and with a £40 balcony ticket (at my utter top range unless it’s a birthday present) I was feeling quite suspicious about getting value on the money despite the build up.

Regular readers will know that I like to go to shows without having plot details revealed to me in advance, but be ready to be shocked: unlike most “normal” people, I have never read Matilda. So I had no idea what it was about, other than it was about a little girl and a mean teacher. My ignorance is due, I think, to growing up in America: while I had James and the Giant Peach read to me, saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, I wasn’t aware there were more Roald Dahl books out there. (Mind, this was about 1976 so there were quite a few less Dahl books at the time.) I had NO IDEA what was going to happen, especially since, with what I knew of Dahl, I igured a traditional happy ending was NOT necessarily in the cards. In fact, in the P.E. scene, when the stage suddenly went all red, I had a bit of a freak out thinking OH MY GOD IT’S GOING TO GO ALL CARRIE ON US and was expecting blood to be splashed everywhere (a thought NOT helped by my friend’s comment about Matilda’s “powers” a few minutes before). COMICALLY KILLER LITTLE GIRL the headlines read selling the show to people who would “get” it, while I sat in a corner, wrapped in a blanket, trying to recover from the terror. Thankfully, this did NOT happen. Rewind to earlier in the evening …

Tickets torn, I walked into a newly bejewelled Cambridge Theater, clutching a bag of chocolates and a rubber newt, and sat down to take in the miracle of the exposed set – all giant letters on wooden blocks, some spelling words, many lit with black lights. It was hard to imagine such a transformation since Chicago left, but it had become quite the little jewelbox. (And yes, there were acres of children in the audience, but, as I expected, they were generally well behaved, even though the show’s running time of 2:45 might have been a bit much for the under 10 set.) It was a good start, really.

Then a table began creeping forward under finger power, the orchestra kicked off, and BANG we were having a show! The kids started out bratty as hell (doing a little number about how each of them was special), a good contrast for introducing Matilda (Cleo Demetriou the night I went), a charming little girl with the trashiest, most ignorant parents (with the most deliciously hideous wardrobe) ever, who are disappointed that she wastes her time doing things like “reading” and “telling stories” and “not being a boy.” Thankfully, as a Dahl heroine, Matilda’s not obliged to be passive and pathetic, but instead shows spunk and rebelliousness. This does NOT go over well at school, where blind obedience is the rule per Headmistress (= principal for fellow Americans) Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel, terrifying and hysterical in a “if only Panto dames were always this awesome” style).

Things I didn’t expect of this story narrative-wise: Matilda is liked by the other kids despite being smart; there is a teacher who positively treasures her (Miss Honey, Lauren Ward); and there is a major subplot involving Matilda telling a story to her librarian friend, Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie). Matilda’s act of imagination is illustrated ingeniously for the stage, with devices ranging from puppets to amazingly costumed actors to an animated movie that reminded me of the Cray brothers. The creative team could have done so much less but instead they took the opportunity to create real theatrical magic – thanks for that, guys.

While I was terrified that the show was going to be cutesy, sappy, and either candied up or dulled down for the expected (and arrived) young audience, in fact, there was none of that: the song lyrics were thoughtful, the movement and dance was original (and hysterical at time); there was appropriate sexuality for the adults (well, Rudolpho, anyway); the humor was all over the place. Best of all, the darkness I expect and love from Dahl appeared in now way to have been sanitized out. People, even adults and parents, are cruel and hurtful and mean; they don’t have to do it because they’re waiting for something magical to happen that takes their problem away but just because they enjoy power and control; children (and adults) suffer from their inability to have the same power; the world is, really, not concerned with fairness.

Matilda, if it has a lesson, is that you don’t need to take life’s unfairness sitting down; that, even though standing against something that is blatantly not right does not mean you can change the outcome, it will, if nothing else, ensure that you did better than go through life as a victim. It’s hard not to enjoy this show for all of its energy, great design work, and high-caliber acting; but ultimately, the reason to see it again (which I will) is because it makes you feel good, even in a world that has so many wrongs in it. Yeah, my tickets were out of budget for me; but for once, I felt like I had really got my money’s worth. I may not have come out singing the songs (in fact I frequently could not hear the lyrics), but I did feel I’d seen a really great show.

(This review is for the press performance that took place on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011. It is booking through September 9, 2012. My advice if you want any kind of discount is to go with a large group. Be advised this show does a Sunday matinee but is dark on Monday.)

Review – New World Order – Hydrocracker at Shoreditch Town Hall via Barbican

November 22, 2011

Who do I love? Harold Pinter. What do I love? Promenade theater. Bring ’em together? It’s like gelato affogato, my favorite dish drowned in a tasty drink of its own. When I read about Hydrocracker’s mini-Pinters promenade, it was the theater event of the fall calendar for me. I got shafted a bit getting tickets due to a miscommunication with the Barbican box office, but, as ever, continuing to check the website meant when some early birds returned their tickets, I was able to jump on them right away and get myself locked in for this show.

Beforehand I was pacing nervously outside Shoreditch Town Hall (near Old Street); we were wanded down, had our ID checked, then were let inside. The evening promised a mix of Press Conference, One for the Road, Precisely, Mountain Language and The New World Order – short plays united by, well, it said human rights but I thought more “torture” – only one of which I had seen before.

We started with a press conference in a bright shiny room with folding chairs and good lighting, and the Inquisitor of “One for the Road” speaking. It’s not just our rights that are being looked out for by our government; it is our mental hygiene. Bad thoughts aren’t just dangerous, they’re an illness in society. We should be grateful caring people are working to keep us clean. Slowly, as the head of the ministry of culture kept speaking, the questions from the press corps died down. I couldn’t help but think it was exactly what most politicians in democratic societies secretly wish they could make happen – God knows the Russians are very effectively putting it into practice through careful assaults and even executions.

After this point I hesitate to speak in too great depth about what happened. We see the same actors several times: the wife in “One for the Road” comes back again and again as “the wife,” attempting to visit her spouse or to negotiate with his keepers; her husband, the torture victim in “One for the Road,” is in scene after scene, as is the Inquisitor (technically named Nicolas in “One for the Road” but I prefer my name). If I’m honest, I found Nicolas less terrifying and The Wife a weaker actress than I did in the September production at the Print Room; but as this evening was aimed at creating a rather different audience experience, this was only a small detraction.

Together, all of these short plays create a reasonably unified narrative, in which families are separated, people are taken into small rooms where they are subject to rules they cannot understand and punished for made up crimes, and wives and mothers desperately try to find and save, or, at least, succour their partners and children. And the environment adds greatly to the effect, as we move from the fairly well kept council chambers to the decaying, forgotten basement rooms, where voices can be heard yelling behind closed doors. It showed how possible it was for this to literally be going on under our feet as we walk down the streets of London.

Meanwhile, we audience members are bullied by the “guards.” I admit, they did a good job of keeping us going from room to room (crowd control is always a problem for promenades) but also of heping us feel a sense of a loss of control and reduction from person into number. We were separated at random from the people we came with; ordered to go this way and that; asked humiliating and pointless questions; had our identities checked at several points; and had to deal with obnoxious flashlights being shined in our faces in an inimidating fashion. I could feel our control being wrested away; and I tell you, it was effective enough that I felt my instinct to fight to preserve my dignity kicking in. One of the women who was being asked obnoxious questions refused to answer; I had a guard grab my arm when I went the wrong way and I tell you I told him off for daring to touch me. In fact, I felt like some people working this show may have been getting just a little bit too much into their characters, much like the ridiculous TSA people do when they think that by harassing people for carrying a slice of apple off of an international flight they’re somehow keeping the United States safe from terrorism. Mr. Arm Grabber did take me aside and tell me rather more politly that due to health and safety regulations I was in fact not allowed into area X; but there was some part of me that was ready to just disturb all of the performances and say, basically, “There are thirty of this here in this room and four of you. Just you try waving that big stick around again and you can guess where you’re going to be finding it in about two minutes.” I had to restrain myself from getting shirty and organizing a citizens revolt. I could see some other audience members were uncomfortable with what was going on, but yet still staying in their/our roles as quiet sheep. Is this how our right to self determination is taken away, by people’s unwillingness to see it happening in front of our eyes?

Overall, I have to give Hydrocracker great credit for creating an environment where they were able to instill a sense of fear of what it would actually be like to undergo the things Pinter writes around in these plays, and to create a sense of urgency to reclaim our own rights from a government happy to take them away in the name of keeping us “safe.” While the acting was not perfect, as a promenade event, “New World Order” is unmissable.

(This review is for the 9:15 show that took place on Friday November 18th, 2011. The show runs through the 11th of December and though it is sold out, returns do appear on the website regularly. Remember to dress as if you were going to be standing outside for the length of the show, as after the first half hour no seating is provided and the basement rooms are very dank.)

Review – Jumpy – Royal Court

November 17, 2011

Although there are only three more days (and four more performances) left for Jumpy at the Royal Court, I would be ashamed to not write up this truly excellent show.

I was a bit disturbed by hearing the play was about “mother daughter relationships” and “turning fifty.” This sounds to me like an excuse for a bunch of self-indulgent navel gazing followed by a treacely group hug. But it was much more about the relationships between the people in the play and the fact that as the people keep changing, the relationships have to change, too. The fact that nothing stays the same seems to be what’s making Hilary (Tamsin Grieg) stress out – it’s bad enough that her skin is sagging, but to have to deal with her nightmarish daughter Tilly (Bel Powley) and then possibly losing her job – it’s no wonder she’s feeling anxious. But her one consolation – her sexless, though not loveless marriage to Mark (Ewan Stewart) – turns out to not be as immutable as she hoped.

This seems like a recipe for a depressing play, and it could have been, but instead, it’s absolutely hilarious. Some of that is due to Hillary’s friend Frances (Doon Mackichan), who in one ten minute scene set a new standard for inappropriate behavior during a play (or, in this case, during a family beach vacation) and burned my eyeballs with the horror of it all. Frances totally adds pizazz to Hilary’s life and keeps her from falling too far down the rabbit hole of self-absorbtion – everyone could use a friend like her. But a lot of laughter is from Hilary’s attempts and failures to navigate the swiftly shifting terms of her relationship with Tilly – it’s clear underneath she loves her, but Tilly is so out of control it seems impossible for Hillary to do anything to keep Tilly’s life from turning into a much bigger wreck than her own. And yet, in a realistic, sympathetic, and almost hopelessy comic way, Hillary keeps trying.

If there’s one lesson to take home from this play, it’s that life keeps on changing no matter how little you want it to, and the best thing you can do is keep on dancing and make an effort to spend time with the people you love (no matter how little they seem to love you, especially if they’re teenagers). It was realistic, and, to my relief, not in the least sentimental. Best of all, it had me crying with laughter, not just because of the situations but because the way the characters talked about what was going on was just so damned funny. Good on you, April De Angelis, for a great play firmly rooted in the here and now that set itself right up for best play and production of 2011. For some of us, who’ve found that life is maybe providing more changes and challenges than we can really handle, it’s the joy of a play like this, and the feeling it gives us that we’re really not alone, that gives us reason and enthusiasm to keep on moving forward past the gravy years and into the great unknown.

Review – Juno and the Paycock – National Theatre

November 16, 2011

Although my trip to the Lyttleton to see Juno and the Paycock was for a preview performance (tonight is the official opening at the National), I’d like to note that there’s no reason not to judge it fully as it stood last night – the production of this 1924 play is a transfer (and coproduction) with the Abbey in Dublin (which has already been reviewed).

Thursday, September 8th, 2011. In a frenzy of purchasing I attack the National Theater website with the aim of securing, at the lowest possible price, tickets to all of the shows in the fall season – all of the ones I think I will enjoy, that is. I read the description of Juno and the Paycock: “One of the great plays of the twentieth century, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock offers a devastating portrait of wasted potential in a Dublin torn apart by the chaos of the Irish Civil War, 1922.” Oh, well, okay! A great play, something to teach me about Irish history, and the pain of wasted potential – sounds like another August: Osage County or even Cat on a Hot Tin Roof! I happily dropped two tickets in my basket (balcony at £20, not as cheap as I was hoping) and went on to the rest of the season.

So. Intense struggling characters; a tightly knit family with their long connections (and resentments) carefully revealed through dialogue; some specifics about living conditions among the poor in the early twenties; a decent leavening of
Irish history. This is what I hoped for.

Horrible, comic, painful overacting (particularly from Ciaran Hinds and Risteard Cooper, who seemed to be in One Man Two Guv’nors); conversations that killed time but went nowhere; lines shouted from the stage; history as window dressing; characters cut from cardboard and moving like paper dolls on a set that looked like a rotting mansion. And worst of all, the play turned “the poor Irish” into caricatures: drunk, lazy, supersitious, ignorant, everything I would criticize as a ridiculous stereotype in a new show. I could feel no sympathy for any of them, because they were not sympathetic; but I felt genuine anger at the playwright, who, I felt, had not made an honest play.

This show was for me like being stuck at two of my least favorite shows of the last thirteen months, Men Shall Weep and Chicken Soup with Barley, as I frequently could not understand what was being said on stage (my American-ness working against me) and had a real dislike of the core characters. But Men Shall Weep at least seemed realistic (and sympathetic, if schmaltzy) and Chicken Soup incorporated the history of London communism to an extent that I became interested enough to do further research. And both of them had characters drawn from the fabric of reality, not from the funny pages, with relationships between them that held together after the curtain dropped. Juno and the Paycock, though – I am convinced that it is fatally flawed as a work on the 21st century stage; and the production could not convince me it had any merit at all.

At the interval (ninety minutes in and at least thirty minutes after I started wondering when we were to be set free), I consulted my companions about our courses of acction. Only one of us wished to stay and it was only so that he could finish his review by saying that he’d actually seen it all; but without me by his side, he didn’t feel he could stay awake. I was not willing to stay just so I could say that I had. I hated it. I wanted to leave the theater with a violent passion. We compromised by looking up the ending on Wikipedia, decided we didn’t really care how it played out, then all melted into the night.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 8th, 2011. It continues through February 26th, 2012. If you feel eager to see this play, I advise patience as you are very likely to be able to get discounted tickets later in the run.)

Review – the “Michael Sheen Hamlet” (or, rather, the Ian Rickson Hamlet) – Young Vic

November 16, 2011

Who in the world buys tickets to shows eight months in advance? Well, if you’re like me, you will all the time if you want to buy them when they’re cheap – especially if it’s a show you’re worried will sell out. In this case, there was a hot tip on Twitter that the Young Vic had a great new production of Hamlet, directed by Ian Rickson (of Jerusalem fame) and starring Michael Sheen. A theatrical event, I thought, the sort of thing I did not want to be left out of – so despite not really knowing who Michael Sheen was (I apparently saw him in Frost/Nixon but forgot all about it), I went ahead and bought tickets in March for a show in November. And then waited.

November rolled around at last, and word on the streets was bad. First, 80% of my Twitter theater friends hated it (summary available on the As Yet Unnamed London Theatre Podcast). Second, the length was announced as three hours and twenty minutes. This is a problem, first, because it’s tiring: three hours is about all I can take. It’s also difficult because of the end time. While the Young Vic is one of the easiest theaters for me to get home from, given that my tickets were for a Monday, I was looking at setting myself up for a week of woe as I would be getting in a good half hour after bedtime. (Laugh if you will but if you see a lot of shows, exhaustion can be a real problem; I try to be really careful to schedule longer shows for Fridays and Saturdays.)

Third, the actual reviews, as they came out, were all over the place, but amongst the haters was some stunningly cutting summaries that just killed my desire to go. What was I to do with such mixed opinions? @weez said, “You must settle the controversy by going!.” So, despite the fact I thought an early night might suit me better (and getting the £60 I spent on tickets back seemed also very tempting), there I was last night, rushing in just before showtime and hoping the cold I had didn’t slow me down*.

By this point, it seems like there’s little for me to add to the reportage on this show. It’s set as if it’s in an insane asylum (a trope so original I first saw it in 1982 in an Arizonan “Coriolanus”), which works insofar as it makes the relationship between Hamlet and other characters a bit more fraught – Polonius (Michael Gould) is his psychologist, constantly taping his conversations, while Rosencranz (Eileen Walsh) and Guildenstern (Adeel Akhtar) seem far less greedy puppets sent to monitor Hamlet for pay but, rather, truly concerned friends who are frightened by his mental disintegration. It also enables some fun effects as people “watch” the patient behind the glassed off security zone (particularly painful in Hamlet’s confrontation with Ophelia), and affords some much more reasonable opportunities for people to overhear conversations (though for all of the patients to know they can hear what’s going on in the guard room simply by playing with certain switches stretches the imagination – even more so than what I needed to do to put meaning to Claudius’s garbled words).

But. Seriously. What does it matter if Hamlet is hallucinating the ghost, and seeing Polonius and even Ophelia come to haunt him, when we just care so little about what is happening on stage? Why was it I couldn’t make a connection with any of the characters? Did Sheen speak too fast? Did he fail to show fragility? Did none of the characters actually act like they had a connection with him, or each other, and did it seem, instead, like I was watching paid professionals go through their paces? Seriously, it is wrong for a production of Hamlet to reach an emotional peak when the aged player is reciting the tale of the death of Priam. Painfully, Ophelia’s mad scene was a horror of inappropriateness and unbelievability. Vinette Robinson never seemed to care particularly about Hamlet (or Polonius), so how could she have reached an emotional depth that would have caused her to lose her mind? Yes, she had a nice singing voice, but it was all so forced! As I sat there slowly readjusting my weight in my seat to try to alleviate the numbness in my bum, my soul was escaping from the building. There was some rock and roll, and an interval, and more flickering lights; I had little reveries of happy Hamlets of days gone by. And eventually it was all over. I know I’ll see a Hamlet that blows me away again; but I wish I’d sold of the seats to someone more easily impressed and instead spent the night with good friends at a bar rather than wasting it in this dessicated production.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, Novemeber 14th, 2011. Hamlet continues at the Young Vic through January 21st, 2012. Trust me, the play’s not the thing. However – see * – I did have good company for the show and if I’m honest with myself this is 80% of the reason why I went.)

Ticket deal – Royal Ballet triple bill (Asphodel Meadows, Enigma Variations, Gloria) two-fer

November 7, 2011

Spotted in this morning’s Metro: a two for one deal for orchestra stalls seats to the Royal Ballet’s next Triple Bill (Asphodel Meadows, Enigma Variations, Gloria) – normally £63 each. It’s good for November 19th at 2pm, and the 23rd and 29th at 7:30. To get the deal, go to the Royal Opera House’s website and enter Metro into the “Do you ave a code” box (and click “Go”) or call the box office and quote the Metro offer. When you enter the code into the website, the prices will show up at normal price AND at the “Metro discount” price – select the radio button for the discounted tickets. (And it appears it isn’t a two-fer so much as a half off, so feel free to take advantage of this offer in odd numbers if you need to.)

Review – Revenge of the Grand Guignol – London Horror Festival at Courtyard Theatre

November 3, 2011

Some two months ago, a friend coming to visit from New York said she wanted to see some scary theater while she was in town (what with it being Halloween and all), and she thought she’d found just the ticket: Revenge of the Grand Guignol, part of the London Horror Festival. Given my positive experience with the “Theatre of Horror” at the Southwark Playhouse two years back and my longstanding love affair with Seattle’s Open Circle Theater’s annual Lovecraft Halloween show, I was all up for this, and fortunately the people running the festival were kind enough to sport me comps for the evening.

The night consisted of four shows: “The Laboratory of Hallucinations” (an update of an original Guignol show by de Lorde and Bauche), “As Ye Sow” (which I think is an original play, by Stewart Pringle, one of the directors of the show), “Hero” (by T.S. Richards, the other director, credited as inspired by “Au Telephone” by de Lorde), and “The Blind Women” (by Pringle, inspired by “Atelier d’aveugles” – Workshop of the Blind – by Descaves). The first show made me worried about the rest of the evening – the acting was ham-fisted and like a very bad B movie – but when they stopped with the plot and got on with the horror, I found myself on the edge of my seat. Oddly despite the theme – let’s say that surgery was involved – there was actually very little blood. This held true for all of the evening, despite about 6 deaths through a variety of means (strangling, hammer, drill, two knives, and possibly a saw). This is NOT what they promised in the press release, but to be honest I found it a relief.

The first show was followed almost immediately by “As ye Sow,” which I approached with caution but found to be the strongest of the night, ultimately as satisfying as Lucy Kirkwood’s “Psychogeography.” The story is about a man in a nursing home, and the thing that I found made it so satisfying is that all of the little things that just didn’t quite seem to be going right seemed to be just as likely to be his mind playing tricks on hinm as anything else. I was reminded of how the ultimate horror in the new, Lovecraftian world, is not of the devil taking your soul; it’s of losing your mind. And on both levels, “As Ye Sow” had all of the ingredients of succes. To top it off, it made me jump two feet straight up. Good job!

After an interval that practially demanded a double straight up, we came back for “Hero.” This play managed to do something I really love to see on stage – incorporating the technologies that are driving our interactions with each other these days (i.e. cellphones, IM, text messaging, Facebook, Skype, Twitter) and turn it into something that not just wound its way into the plot, but was used creatively to express communication happening in a non-play-standard way. To make it even more fun, it had a VERY dodgy sex scene that had me REALLY wondering what some of the stuff that came out of (insert location here) was meant for – and it built the tension remarkably. While I had a bit of a problem with … well, best not to share any details, but something was too fast. However, the ending was TOTALLY satisfying, not to mention I got a lot of laughs watching the lead actor continue to smoke as he helped rearrange the set.

The final play was “Workshop of the Blind,” and I was grateful for the seriously overdone makeup that helped me keep the fourth wall in place, because this was a real horror play, with mental abuse, torture, death of innocents, and just everything awful you could imagine not involving cannibalism. It built tension tremendously and, while the acting of the three blind women was (again) OTT, I found it served to enhance the mood of ultra-reality – sort of like the Bela Lugosi Dracula. I was cringing a bit in my seat at the end, but, overall, I couldn’t help but feel that in everyway I got what I came for, as the evening had me scared, horrified, and, ultimately, feeling very much glad to be alive as I walked out into the night. Overall, I’d say this was an evening of terror theater well worth seeing.

(This review is for a perfomance that took place on November 1st, 2011. Running time was 2:10 including interval. It continues through November 27th.)

Review – My City – Almeida Theatre

November 1, 2011

Two months ago, a friend told me she was coming out to visit from New York. We reviewed the shows that would be playing, and she said, “This one! I must see My City because I love Tracey Ullman and I love the Almeida!” Well, then. Tickets were bought … but then the reviews began to come out, and I had The Fear. People seemed to be really disliking the show. However, it was sold out for nearly the whole run … was it just celebrity casting? Were my fellow online reviewers not in touch with the theater-going public? Only one way to find out …

As it turns out, My City was an engaging night of story telling with a strong cast, though it failed to fully develop the Roald Dalh-esque ending it seemed to be heading for. The framing of the story is that an adult student (Richard – Tom Riley) runs into his primary school teacher (Lambert – Tracey Ullman) while she’s lying on a park bench and acting not altogether well, a chance encounter that leads into a full-on reunion between the student (and his best school friend and fellow difficult student Julie – Siân Brooke) and the key teachers at the school (a random North London elementary). While the story of the play appears to be something about letting go of the past (poignantly shown by the old posters Mr Minken – David Troughton – has held on to over the years) in order to build yourself a better future, the actual purpose, in my book, is to tell a variety of stories both about the past (a magical London inhabited by elephants and legions of typists, not to mention apple-crunching ghosts) and the present (a rather more frightening world with child murderers and rat hunting), providing an overlay to the city most of us live in – my city to be sure, and likely yours – that makes Old Smoke seem a more exciting place to be. These stories are primarily told by Lambert, with her two assistant teachers (Minken and Summers – Sorcha Cusack) acting by her side, or occasionally taking the lead.

The play gets to quite a head as it becomes clear that Richard has also been telling stories, and his exposure leads to a confrontation between the former students and the retired teachers. It seems that the teachers are conspiring against the kids, somehow, but the playwright has for some reason chosen to not pursue this very interesting avenue – what would, in a Roald Dahl world, been the misanthropic goal of the teachers, forever plotting against their kids? – but rather takes us on a sudden side track in which Richard suddenly figures out the reason for Lambert’s long walks in an extraordinarily unsatisfying finale.

To top it off, the whole trope of “leaving the past behind” seems to me to be utterly upended by the raw beauty of what Mr Minken has held on to over the years – not just the mementos of the children he’s taught, but relics of his family that, to be honest, have created a memory in me that I think will stay forever, of one little box with two precious things in them (my own new mind picture burned in by a real scene stealing performance of how this box came to be what it was). I left the evening disappointed by the play structurally – especially with what it could have done with more time and more imagination – but pleased by the evening.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, October 31st, 2011. My City continues through Saturday, November 5th.)