Archive for December, 2011

A year in blogging – Webcowgirl’s most popular posts of 2011 – and tips for improving your blog stats

December 31, 2011

Here, in order, are the top several of my blog posts in 2011, with the number of hits each received (italicized ones are for shows not from 2011 – general interest ones are not italicized but have their date published).

  1. Best (Top Ten +) cheap restaurants in London’s West End Theatre-land (2009) 7,241
  2. 12 best ways to get cheap theatre tickets in London (2008)5,708
  3. Review – Matthew Bourne’s 2010 “Cinderella” – Sadler’s Wells Theatre 3,198
  4. Review – A Woman Killed with Kindness – National Theater 1,857
  5. Review – Top Hat (the musical, not the movie) – Milton Keynes (then Birmingham Hippodrome, Southampton Mayflower, Plymouth Theatre Royal, Leeds Grand etc.) 1,721
  6. £25 off two “top price” tickets for War Horse – except matinees, Sat PM (2009) 1,661
  7. Review – Frankenstein – National Theatre 1,516
  8. Review – The Veil – National Theatre 1,492
  9. Shen Yu “Divine Performing Arts” Ensemble – Chinese Art Spectacular – Royal Festival Hall 1,162
  10. Review – Emperor and Galilean – National Theatre 1,038
  11. Review – One Man, Two Guvnors – National Theatre 997
  12. Review – Accomplice, London – Tom Salamon and Betsy Sufott at the Menier Chocolate Factor 979
  13. Review – Putnam County Spelling Bee – Donmar WarehouseMore stats876
  14. Review – April 2011 Secret Cinema – Waterloo TunnelsMore stats808
  15. Review – The Red Shoes – Kneehigh Theatre at Battersea Arts CentreMore stats782
  16. Review – Alice in Wonderland – Royal BalletMore stats739
  17. About WebcowgirlMore stats706
  18. Review – Cleopatra – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand TheatreMore stats703
  19. Review – Peter Brook’s “A Magic Flute” – Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord at Barbican TheaterMore stats671
  20. Preview – 2011 Diaghilev Festival – Kremlin Ballet Theater at English National OperaMore stats625
  21. Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The BarbicanMore stats597
  22. Review – Office Party – Mick Perrin for Just For Laughs Live at the Pleasance TheaterMore stats560
  23. Review – Luise Miller – Donmar WarehouseMore stats534
  24. Review – Mike Leigh’s Grief – National Theater CottlesloeMore stats523
  25. Review – The Blue God – Kremlin Ballet Theater 2011 Diaghilev Festival at London ColiseumMore stats506
  26. Review – Carlos Acosta Premieres – Sadler’s Wells at the London ColiseumMore stats497
  27. Review – Moonlight – Donmar TheaterMore stats494
  28. Review – Becky Shaw – Almeida TheaterMore stats489
  29. Review – Under the Blue Sky – Duke of York’s TheatreMore stats472
  30. Review – Thirteen (by Mike Bartlett) – National Theatre More stats463
  31. Metro deal – half off 2 top price tickets for “The Snowman” at Peacock Theatre/Sadler’s WellsMore stats423
  32. Comments – Haunted Child – Royal Court Theatre More stats 416
  33. Ticket deal – £10 off top price tix for War Horse – September 6-17 2010 only More stats367
  34. Review – Men Should Weep – National TheatreMore stats357
  35. Review – La Soiree – South Bank Big Top (behind National Theatre)More stats354
  36. Review – Cinderella – Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera HouseMore stats337
  37. Review – Juno and the Paycock – National TheatreMore stats337
  38. Mini-review – The Blue Dragon – Robert Lepage/Ex Machina at Barbican CenterMore stats330
  39. Review – Audience – Ontroerend Goed at the Soho TheaterMore stats328
  40. Review – Betty Blue Eyes – Novello TheaterMore stats321

This year I continued to let the audience (you!) determine what I wrote about, and wrote less about dance (though I saw 34 performance this year) and frequently just didn’t bother to review shows that were near closing. I also traveled more to see shows, making it to Watford, Milton Keynes, Leeds, and Birmingham in an attempt to get to those hot productions I didn’t want to have to wait until they got to London to see. This yielded some great returns for me trafficwise: 1,721 for my review of Top Hat, which I caught its opening week in Milton Keynes and which ultimately delivered the fifth most hits for the year (and second best of my reviews for 2011). A similar phenomenon was seen for my 2010 review of Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, which underperformed (for me) while it was at Sadler’s Wells but which took off as it toured England and ended as my most popular review in 2011 and third most visited page.

Lesson learned for blogging: if you’re reviewing a touring show, I think listing the theaters it is going to play in helps people find your review when they’re searching. I do some in the title of the article but also do it in my closing paragraph where I include the dates it is playing.

Looking at the other top hits, I see the same trends as last year: people come to reviews when bloggers are the only game in town (see ’em early and write ’em up quick); reviews of shows in larger venues drive more traffic (unsurprising as more people can see them); and people still really want a deal. So my number one page AGAIN was best cheap restaurants in theater-land (a page which I update about every two months as I find new restaurants and my old ones close or fall out of favor), and number two was an article about getting theater tickets on the cheap. Heck, #6 was a worn-out coupon to get into War Horse on the cheap (hint: just pay the money as it sells out all of the time or buy cheap seats). I guess it makes me happy in some ways: I love to show that theater and going out in London can be affordable if you’ve got just as much as twenty quid, and sometimes you can even do it for less. On the other hand, I’d like it if my new content was getting more hits; God knows I work hard enough in making it!

Otherwise … I think I said most of what I had to say about driving traffic in last year’s post. I cross-post my new reviews on Twitter, Facebook, and Livejournal; I comment on other people’s reviews of shows I’ve seen (though only after I’ve written my review, as I don’t want to contaminate my opinion); and, most importantly, I try to make this blog one with reviews people can trust. When I enthuse, it’s a show that I think really has special merit (Little Angel Theatre’s remarkable Tempest comes to mind); and when I walk out of a show it’s because I’ve lost my life to live in just one act (The Veil and Haunted Child win the booby prize for chasing me out into the dark, and I would have left the Martin Sheen Hamlet as well if I hadn’t had a date.) I don’t make a penny off of any of my writing, and over the course of the entire year I’ve received a grand total of four free tickets for shows. I write for YOU – and I write for me, just another member of London’s hard core theater going community. I saw 136 live performances last year and I’m proud to support the arts with my ticket money – and to support London audiences by providing honest reviews of what I’ve seen. I hope you find it helpful.


December theater mini-reviews – A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Little Angel), Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndham’s) and Judgement Day (Print Room)

December 30, 2011

It’s nearly the end of the year and I’m realizing that I haven’t been able to keep up reviewing shows this month at all, an unsurprising consequence of thirteen shows, four dinners with friends, three parties, two full days on the road and two evening classes in a twenty-two day period. My time on trains has been used for napping; and my job has been too busy for me to write at work. What’s left? Why, an eight post extravaganza over the Christmas season. Don’t say you weren’t looking forward to it. Everyone else is doing recaps; hell, I haven’t even discussed the shows in the first place!

Right, so first off is “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” a collaboration between Kneehigh and the Little Angel. As a Marquez fan, I found much to recommend it: the incredible feeling of sadness (despite the chipper, English seaside setting) of both the angel and the underlying Marquez truth that people are perfectly willing to ignore magic in favor of making money; the lovely puppets; and the moments of wonderful … cinematography? (The scenes of the storm over the ocean and of the hosts of angels singing were particularly good.) It took advantage of its format to tell the story in a way that made the magical realism easy to swallow (and which would be nearly impossible to do with actors). Yet I was frustrated by the pointless songs and the occasional dumbing down of the story – both things that helped make the story more palatable for  younger audiences but which I found cluttering. Overall I enjoyed enough lovely moments in this show to find it worth the trip to Islington on a Sunday, but it frustrated me too much to really get behind it as a show. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 11th, 2011: continues through January 29th, 2012.)

Next up was Driving Miss Daisy at the Wyndham’s Theater. I wanted to see this in New York but couldn’t afford it: happily, at the end of the run, 10 quid tickets were available way up in the 2nd balcony – and for that price, I wasn’t going to complain. I mean, Vanessa Redgrave! Darth Vader – er, James Earl Jones! I knew the story generally from seeing the movie, but the undercurrent of the evolution of race relations was stronger than before – the scene where Daisy has her driver leave her at the door so she can attend a Martin Luther King dinner was particularly bitter. I couldn’t help but think of the Cracked magazine article on “Old Timey Prejudices in Movies” and its final assertion, “We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People.” This play totally seemed to be drawing from that vein of American popular culture. But still, the other story in this play – the one about aging and independence and friendship – was a joy, and I let myself be completely emotionally manipulated for the entire enjoyable ninety minutes of this show. I didn’t even care that most of the set was cheap projections of the sort that normally piss me off with their obvious cost-cutting; instead, I got into the characters and the story and even got sniffly at the end. Really, it was a perfect after work treat and I’m glad I managed to break away from Christmas programming in time to see this before it closed. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 12th, 2011. The final performance was December 17th.)

Next up was Mike Poulton’s “Judgement Day,” his version of Ibsen’s “When We Dead Awaken.” This was a must-see for me, as I love Ibsen and have never seen this play performed in any version: it got bonus must-see points for being straight through (about 80 minutes I think) and from the latter era of his writing (which I think is stronger) and in a lovely intimate space (the Print Room). However, the play is a bit melodramatic at its heart: an old sculptor (Michael Pennington) has lost his ability to create art anymore, but winds up being tracked down by the muse (Penny Downie) whom he’s convinced stole his artistic soul away – but she thinks he stole hers and is out for revenge. Meanwhile, the sculptor’s wife (Maia, Sara Vickers) is married to someone who doesn’t respect her in the least – a relationship that had me confused as it had very little to do with the central story other than to provide a contrast of a couple who is embracing life (Maia and massive jerk Baron Ulfheim, Philip Correia). The whole thing was so heavily metaphorical that it just didn’t work for me, and while Pennington was perfect, Ms. Downie just didn’t seem to get “crazy.” To be honest, I haven’t seen a crazy person portrayed believably on stage (except by Ben Daniels in Haunted Child) in so long I think maybe actors don’t actually realize how generally sane crazy people are – it’s an important survival tactic if you want to stay out of the loony bin. Anyway, I found myself still getting a bit bored despite what should have been a whip-cracking running time, so I must consider this play to have ultimately been a failure, not helped by the fact that the main characters were just painfully unsympathetic: you shouldn’t be hoping as hard as I was that they’d just fall down a cliff face and be done with it. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 13th, 2011: it closed on December 17th.)

That done, I’ve hit all of the reviews for this year I’m going to write (unless I do a round up of the Suspense Adult Puppetry festival, highly unlikely now that it’s almost two months over): time for the end of the year roundup!

Mini-review – Beauty and the Beast – Northern Ballet at Leeds Grand

December 29, 2011

In these days of fewer dance companies and more reliance on the “tried and true” in choreography (I counted four Nutcrackers in London this December, all of them remounts), it’s a cause for celebration when a new ballet is choreographed. So when I saw some photos for Northern Ballet’s production of Beauty and the Beast, I saw dangled before me a great opportunity to see a completely new ballet (a story I’d never even seen danced before) as well as a wonderful excuse to travel to the lovely city of Leeds. Tickets were bought (not for opening night, alas, but a convenient Sunday matinee), and off I went to figure out what story supported the rather intriguing costuming.

The show starts with some fantastic scene setting, as our almost Dorian Grey-like Beast-to-be (Kenneth Tindall as Prince Orian) preens and enjoys the fun of being shallow, pretty, and popular. This scene was great storytelling, effectively communicating the idea of his incredible ego and selfishness – in essence, the monster he is inside – is laid out perfectly clearly to us. It seems fitting for an evil fairy (I think called La Fee Magnifique – Victoria Sibson) to turn his outside into a creature that matches his inside – the Beast (Ashley Dixon, most astoundingly muscular in a rather X-Men style).

The story then switches to that of Beauty (Martha Leebolt) and her family, her luckless, feckless father (Darren Goldsmith) and her shallow, selfish sisters (Georgina May and Pippa Moore). While the sisters are obsessed with clothing and dances, Beauty (in a Matilda-esque turn) is a great reader – noticed by her sisters’ suitors but disinterested in the milieu. Of course, this means that when financial disaster falls (comically done with a cleverly designed moving van and some handsome debt collectors), she’s much better able to handle sudden poverty. The scenes of Beauty’s family in the woods post-financial crisis are great, with a wonderful rusting camper van adding a very modern touch to the set while giving Beauty plenty of opportunity to show her practicality and selflessness.

I could go on with describing the story – there’s a rose, Beauty goes to the Beast’s castle in her father’s stead, happy endings all around – and the nicely done sets (such as the rose bower where Beauty sleeps – sadly the costumes seemed generally flimsy and not worth discussing) – but in summary, I was hoping for much better choreography and I just didn’t get it. There is a lovely sequence with Beauty dancing with her dream prince – the Beast in his handsome incarnation – with the envious and sad ugly Beast watching on – that had the kind of emotional complexity expressed through movement that I can really get swept up in. But so much of it was just … well, it seemed to be moving us along from plot point to plot point, getting the tale told, and not giving us a chance to revel in the joy of ballet. I often tell people that the whole point of story ballets is providing us with a plot that allows us to string a lot of wonderful dancing together, but in this case, the story really took over. I did enjoy myself, but I felt like somewhere there will be another choreographer that tells this story in a way that speaks to me more deeply as a lover of dance.

(This review is for a performance that took lace on Sunday, December 18th, 2011, where it continues through December 31st. The show runs for about 2 1/2 hours with two intervals; I consider it to be very suitable for families due to the sustained drama keeping energy levels high. There is a review of it in the Telegraph should you care to read it. It will be touring extensively: Edinburgh, Festival Theatre; Sheffield, Lyceum theatre; Hull New Theatre; Milton Keynes Theatre; Cardiff, New Theatre; Canterbury, Marlowe Theatre.)

Mini-review – Nutcracker – Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Hippodrome and the O2 Arena

December 26, 2011

I have three traditions every Christmas: I see a new version of a Christmas Carol, I see a panto, and I see a new version of the Nutcracker. This year, Birmingham Royal Ballet was the designated dance company, as I’d never seen the Peter Wright choreography and have really been enjoying the quality of this group’s work. They’re bringing it to the O2 arena in London as I write this, but I knew I wasn’t going to be around to see it then thanks to having Christmas plans that involved going back to the States. So on the first Saturday of December I headed out, bright and early, for my first ever trip to Birmingham – with tickets bought well in advance for a sold-out performance.

It was an easy walk to the theater, and I was pleased to see an outpost of my beloved Red Hot Szechuan restaurant practically next door – the Hippodrome is right next to Chinatown so lunch options are numerous. The theater was interesting – inside, a lovely old music hall era building, but the external audience services areas were all very modern, leading me to suspect an add-on at some point.

This review isn’t going to go into a lot of detail about the dancing as I didn’t take explicit notes, but is more a record of the differences between this Nutcracker and others. First, the role of Clara is played in both acts by an adult – in this case Carol-Anne Millar, whom I’ve taken a shine to since seeing her in “Pineapple Poll” last October. This means that the dancing in Act One is generally much better quality than any show relying on a child principal – so much better to put an adult in a girlish dress and let her dance skill show through! Interestingly, the focus of this ballet is much less on, as I call it, “Clara’s awakening to adulthood,” to the world of love instead of the love of dolls; a situation which means she does very little dancing with the prince in Act 2 and turns all of it into an extended dream sequence. I was also taken with the costuming for the party in Act 1 – the various mothers all have dresses which, despite having very modern colorings to them, are attractively cut in a Victorian way (circa 1870-1888) that I found very enjoyable for my inner geek.

Act one was actually not particularly memorable (rather a lack of some expected elements such as the clock, and little was made of Clara participating in the battle of the mice). Really, it never is, but I found the general tenor of the dance was enjoyable and the Harlequin and Columbine that Drosselmeier brought were a bit more “real people under an evil spell” than usual. Things started to crank up (as usual) when Clara is finally transported to Sugar Plum land, where instead of just having snowflakes dancing around the Snow Fairy (Yijing Zhang), we got four very yummy men getting in on the action and adding a lot of zest with powerful leaps – these being the “four winds.” Where the idea came from, I’ll never know, but in terms of taking some fairly “yeah I’ve seen this before” section of the ballet and giving it real freshness, this was a big success of Wright’s choreography. Go team BRB!

Act two was the suites and the waltz of the flowers. Each “suite” had a bit that allowed Clara to participate, whether following along, fanning herself, or wearing silly hats. Of the group, I was smitten with the Arabian dance, which had an odalisque (Celine Gittens) borne aloft by three male attendants (Brandon Lawrence, Bejamin Soerel, Tyrone Singleton) and dancing so very sensually that I was convinced the true potential of this music had finally been reached. Sadly, the effect was broken almost immediately by the Chinese dance, which was performed in yellow-face. I was mortified. Are there really so few East Asians in England that this can somehow seem acceptable? I would propose that, if BRB wants to put dancer who are clearly recognizable as being from, say, China, on stage, that perhaps they should look at using Chinese Opera makeup instead of this horrible racist slap that does no favors to the company, the dancers, or to the message it sends about racism. It’s 2011, guys, get with the program.

Clara’s non-romance means the grand pas de deux at the end of the Waltz of the Flowers lacks the kind of emotional punch it would have had if it had been Clara and her prince, but as it stands, the work as a whole is very enjoyable and I think a strong Nutcracker, less fluffy than the Royal Ballet’s although with less emotional impact than theirs. I’d consider it worth seeing again, and I hope it’s a grand success at the O2 when they make it there this week.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 3rd, 2011. It will be performed at London’s O2 arena December 27-30, 2011.)

December theater mini-reviews – Donmar “Richard II” and Hackney Empire “Cinderella”

December 24, 2011

Santa is leaving nothing for me in my stocking because I’ve been neglecting my theater blog. There’s been so much to see, and I’ve traveled so much (with indulgent trips to Birmingham for “The Nutcracker” and Leeds for “Beauty and the Beast”) that actually getting words on paper (or whatever I’m doing right now) has not been happening. So there’s probably 8 shows I’ve seen this much that I’ve neglected to write up. However, I’m going to try to get reviews up for a few of them that are still open: just be advised I’m doing this in an airport with limited internet access and no programs to reference for actors’ names.

First, the Hackney Empire’s “Cinderella.” Hackney has been the gold standard for pantos for me: aimed at the kids, affordable for families, with an excellent atmosphere that helps me be a kid, too. But they’ve shot over the top with the incredible skills of their dame, Clive Rowe, and the clever songwriting skills and script (full of political jokes and local references) that have made every dusty old fairytale fresh and fun.

I had my worries about “Cinderella” as Clive was taking the year off. What would we do without his wisecracks, amazing improv talents, and fabulous voice? According to a friend, Cinderella doesn’t actually need a dame as the mom is played by a woman, while it’s the stepsisters who do the drag duties. I’m pleased to say that the voices were on and the stepmom was a delicious villain, but a lot of the snap had gone. The improv (from the sisters) was soft (they apologized for going off script, whereas I thought they should have revelled in it!), the references to Hackney were few, and the only real political jokes I heard were references to phone hacking and the difficulty of getting Olympics tickets. Sure, it was good, but I just couldn’t get my enthusiasm up to the wild levels of the past even with front row tickets. Apparently “Aladdin” at the Lyric Hammersmith is the one to beat, but I won’t get to see it. That said, this is still a good show and lacking in the nauseating commerciality I’d seen at some more upscale venues, so I can recomend it as a family afternoon or evening out … and they do need our support. *sigh* PLEASE CAN WE HAVE CLIVE BACK NEXT YEAR? (This show was seen on Wednesday, December 15th, 2011.)

Next up is Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse. Wonderfully, this was a show I didn’t know at all, so I had NO idea how it was going to end: history plays, to what extent are they comedies and to what extent tragedies? It was a typical Donmar set (dark floor, balcony above) but with bonus incense filling the room and a lovely churchy-gold-wood thing going on that helped illustrate Richard’s point about the divinity of kinghood. I thought this was a good insight into the medieval soul as well as some of the core issues that have continued to dog English politics – the peasants will love you as long as you kiss their ass and don’t take too much from their purses. That said, Richard II himself was a queer bird and seemed just bizarrely affected in a way that was possibly meant to indicate impending madness but that came off as “I’ve just come out of acting school and this is the “method” I’ve chosen for this role, you will of course go with it.” I found it off-putting, but with a strong cast, and, hey, Shakespeare, plus ten quid tickets, it was certainly worth my time. Not worth standing the whole evening, mind you, but a great way to knock out a history. Someday perhaps Propeller will do it and then I’ll see what they can really achieve with this script. (This show was seen on Wednesday, December 12th, 2011).

Both of these shows are certainly worth a gander though neither blew my socks off – I’ve really only been reviewing shows I have a lot to say about. Anyway, call ’em serviceable. (Richard II continues at the Donmar through February 4th, 2012; Cinderella through January 8th, 2012.)

Review – Crazy for You – Novello Theater

December 15, 2011

Usually, when I go see shows I want to know as little as possible about them. This was hardly possible for Crazy for You, which I just saw this summer at Regent’s Park. But when I was offered free tickets to see a show I loved more than any musical I’d seen all year, how could I say no? Tap dancing! Wonderful costumes! Great songs and a light-hearted plot! I was more than pleased to see how the transfer had done now that it was all set up in the Novello Theater.

So, story: Bobby, a banker with dreams of dancing on the Great White Way, leaves behind New York and his friends at the Zangler Follies to go to Deadrock, Nevada, under orders from his mom to repossess a theater there. He falls in love with Polly, the theater owners daughter, who rejects him when she figures out he’s from the bank. As for the rest of it … well, it has a happy ending, and the rest is too much fun to reveal in my review.

I’m pleased to say that all of the energy of the original show is still there, and that the lack of a lovely sunset is more than compensated for by the removal of the terror of an evening squall. This time, I knew what to expect: this is not a musical where the songs really move the story forward, but more a show with musical numbers that provide an excuse for some truly outstanding dancing. And the end of act one, “I Got Rhythm,” just had me completely wound up as the tension got higher and higher and the tenuous connection with reality shot away like a balloon slipping its tether. Do cowboys play the bass fiddle? Is it possible to dance on a trash can lid? Thanks to the power of A Darn Fine Show, these silly concerns of “reality based theater watching” were no longer relevant. It all happened because it had to happen, because the girl needed to fall in love with the guy and the whole thing was just going to have to have a happy ending somehow. I gave up my criticizing and just went with the flow. It was lovely!

The second act had the number I’d most like to perform myself (“Naughty Baby”) and a great comedy moment with Bobby and Zangler as two drunks thinking they’re seeing their mirror image. However, there was a bit too long of an energy gap while Bobby and Polly were trying to figure out just where they should be (together, in New York, etc), which makes me think that about 10 minutes of the show (and Polly’s number “”But Not For Me”) should probably go just to keep it tight. But it all came together in the most amazing finale that was right out of the Busby Berkeley musicals I love – and right on stage in front of me. Wow. It was still just fantastic, the perfect cure for a London winter, a musical so full of joy you have to just give in and enjoy yourself. In some ways, it seems like something I could go see regularly, on Fridays after work, or just after a particularly down day when I wanted a pick me up. And I suppose I can, if I want to, since it’s booking through July 2012.

(This review is for a performance that took place on November 29th, 2011.)

Review – Bollywood Cinderella: the Pantomime! – Tara Arts Theatre

December 13, 2011

Cross “Bollywood” and “Panto” and you know that I’ll be beating down the door. I was clued in to this show by, of all things, Time Out‘s London panto listings (rather than the seemingly more comprehensive It’s Behind You). Everything got even better because the theater, Tara Arts, is right down the street from where I live, and as it was early in the run, they were nice enough to give me a free set of tickets (though for cushion seats on the floor). Saturday matinee after a yummy lunch at Tooting Broadway’s Dosa and Chutney, how could this not be a totally brilliant afternoon?

As it turns out, I could not have asked for a better time than this authentically British panto. From the pink Christmas tree decorated with plastic fruit and garlands of flowers in the lobby to the tiny auditorium (seating for maybe 50?), it was shiny, glittery, high energy, and fun, fun, fun. The lights went up on a cast of mixed familiarity (evil stepmother and stepsister in traditional eye-burning bad drag – Simon Norburry and Ali Zaidi) and the more glamorous and exotic Prince Raj (Nitin Ranpuria, my God the muscles) and Sunder(ella – Krupa Pattani, as beautiful and graceful as a princess should be, but with way more attitude than the normal humble and somewhat dull Cinders). The bridge between the two worlds is the Buttons-like character of Nitin (Maya Sondhi), who is the prince’s butler/companion. Nitin explains a lot of the Bollywood traditions (and Hindi words) for the benefit of us less clued-in types, so the “dream sequence” and lip synching make more sense. That said, singer Sohini Alam had such a great voice I was happy to have her doing all of the songs – it’s rare to get such raw talent in a “backing band” and I revelled in every note.

The story is not much changed from the original, except that the stepmother is a queen (having won the right to the kingdom from Sunder’s father in a bet), and the prince actually meets Sunder before the ball as he roams the countryside looking for someone who loves him for himself, not for his title. This leads to some interesting scenes as both the Queen and her “daughter,” Happy-Lucky, fall in love with the wrong guys. But we of course have a ball, and there is a missing slipper, so most of the traditional elements are firmly in place even though the dancing and singing vegetables (with their hilarious cast-off sweater costumes) are nowhere to be found in the original. There are even a few topical political jokes for the adults.

With all of the energy of this show, it’s a grim faced grinch who wouldn’t get into it, as the dancing five year old seated on the front row cushions demonstrated. It’s original, witty, musical, fun to watch, loaded with puns, and has a okra/aubergine romance – and rounds it all out with this year’s obligatory Lady Gaga reference. And it didn’t wear out its welcome. If I were looking for a really fun panto that was a good time for all ages of audience, I would absolutely pick this little diamond. Tara Arts is going to be one to be beat this year!

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday December 190th, 2011. It continues through December 24th.)

Review – Audience – Ontroerend Goed at the Soho Theater

December 10, 2011

I came to Ontroerend Goed’s “Audience” having seen them before at the One on One Festival at Battersea Arts Center, but knowing very little about this performance other than that I had some free tickets secured courtesy of the Twespians. But it’s not fair to say I had no preconceptions: in fact, I had a negative experience at my previous encounter with this troupe that heavily affected my mood going into this show. Last spring, I saw “Internal,” which B.A.C. described as “speed dating meets group therapy,” but I found it something verging on audience abuse. Admittedly, I was there to challenge myself (as part of a series of short shows that were billed as edgy), but I did not care for having a cast member share with nine strangers information I’d given him when asked privately to reveal a “dark secret;” I was offended and I interrupted his monologue to tell my side of the story (which had been recast to put me in a particularly ugly light), even though I felt that my speaking up wasn’t really part of show. But I was angry, and I wasn’t going to be treated like a fool in public by a total stranger.

Afterward, thinking about the effect they had on the other people I’d seen the show with – leaving my compatriots thinking they’d actually made friends or romantic connections with the performers – I was disturbed by Ontroerend Goed’s callous manipulation. They had broken the rules of interaction laid down as the Law Of The Theater, and caused my companions to think we were thus no longer in a theatrical environment dealing with actors, but were in fact dealing with “real people” who were actually talking about their feelings rather than following a script. Oddly, at the same time Ontroerend Goed expected us to continue following the theatrical paradigm, not speaking out of turn (certainly not challenging what was said on “stage” like I did), and generally letting the experience be run for us rather than directed by us and our wills.

To me, the scales were not weighted evenly. While I had wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone, I didn’t like seeing people’s heads messed with. And I was angry at the actor’s violation of my expectation of privacy and secrecy. He broke a social agreement. This caused me to break the actor/audience agreement. I felt in the end that we’d all been cleverly manipulated, that the evening had been something that was less performance and more social experiment, acceptable in the context of a “challenging” “One on One” experience, but on the boundaries of acceptability. I kind of admired it, but it has to be said, when I got to the Soho Theater, my guard was up. “Audience” was billed as “mischievous and exhilarating,” but my expectation was that it was likely to be manipulative and potentially mean, that at the least it might make me feel uncomfortable, but there was also a good chance that it could leaving me feeling angry, used, and possibly betrayed. And this was NOT how I wanted to feel at the end of the night.

And, I was determined, this time I would not.

This meant when I walked into the theater, I was feeling somewhat combative. I didn’t want to leave my bag in the strange little cloakroom; and I didn’t want to be somewhere that might lead the cast to pick me out for any kind of “special attention.” I wasn’t interested in the lecture telling us what proper audience behavior was; and I kept my distance (and refused to participate) as we were run through the paces of how to clap. As it turned out, I did get some attention, as I was featured in a video montage as the “brightest (dressed) person in the room;” but I wasn’t bothered by this (as I showed by flashing my devil horns at the video camera pointed at me). I’m easy to spot. (And for the record: it was what I wore to the office that day.)

By the end of the night, many of my negative expectations had been met. We, the audience, had been treated like mindless sheep, told what we were (leisured and healthy, as qualifying for benefits or having invisible disabilities did not fit in with the narrative any more than my brilliantly patterned clothing), and told how we thought, in an exercise that reminded me of the Riceville blue eyed/brown eyed class exercise or the Sanford prison experiment.

I believe Ontroerend Goed has an expectation of a certain level of response from the audience, and their goal is not just to wait until they get a response (basically, to see when someone will blink), but to coordinate this blinking over the course of the evening so as to move their show forward. In some ways, based on the video montage they showed at the end, I think they wanted us to see how easy it is to slip into the kinds of behaviors that allow things like the rise to power of the Nazis, perhaps because of the restraints caused by social conformity and, perhaps, the desire to “be nice” and not make a fuss.

It was clear to me from before that it’s our sense of restraint (as in, we bought a ticket and thus must follow the “rules” of behavior for an audience) that enables the actions I find offensive in Ontroerend Goed. They let themselves break the rules, but then rely on us continuing to follow them. I was not interested in this game and instead switched to the new paradigm right as they did. But they were unable to adapt: given rams when expecting lambs, Ontroerend Goed had to carry on trying to show how we were members of a unified, single-minded, easily controlled organism. The effect was weak and purposeless given the freedom we had claimed for ourselves. I fear, in the end, my combativeness and what it sparked upended the evening. Ontroerend Goed was simply unableto improv their way out of the mess I’d made.

The show made me angry, even though I realized in the end that I’d probably got upset over something that had no more meaning than any other scene played out on any other stage. But this time, at least, I didn’t walk out feeling like I’d been used. Was I manipulated? Probably. But the rest of the audience made me feel like we had held up the social contract with each other. I had not, this time, been betrayed; I told a mouthy actor we wanted to see a whole new world, and, as the rest of the audience shouted “I am Spartacus!”, this time we got it. Thank you, fellow audience members. I’d always hoped I wasn’t really all alone.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 9th, 2011. Performances continue through January 7th, 2012. Another analysis of Ontroerend Goed is here; a review by Tipsy Hippo of Thursday’s show here. While I considered this show angry-making, it did lead to three hours of conversation afterward, which, given the show was just barely an hour, was a damned good return on investment. No one was physically damaged in this show except for my friend with hypermobility who had an actor shake her back out of alignment in an attempt to encourage her to stand up and dance to some sexist rap music. Ontroerend Goed, KEEP YOUR HANDS OFF OF THE AUDIENCE. You HURT her. I had to watch her shuffling in pain down one set of stairs after another all the way home because of your thoughtless assumption that anyone without a visible disability must actually be healthy. Don’t be so arrogant next time.)

Review – Dublin Carol – Trafalgar Studios

December 9, 2011

Every year I have three Christmas theater traditions: I try to see one Nutcracker, one Panto (or two, or three), and one “Christmas Carol.” This year I did a combo “Christmas Carol” outing, with one trip to hear a reading of Dicken’s story “The Chimes” in the Garden Court Chambers (satisfying the Dickens part) and one trip to see a show with the word “Carol” in it that I thought might have more than a passing nod to the more famous body of plays borrowing on the Dickensian trope. And, well, one act play with seventy minutes running time, what’s not to like?

As it turns out, about the only thing this show has in common with Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” is that it takes place on Christmas eve. John (Gary Lydon) isn’t rich and certainly doesn’t lord it over the poor; his sin is that of being long a drunk and willing to point the finger of blame for his wreck of a life to anyone but himself. It’s a skill he’s eager to teach Mark (Rory Keenan), his assistant-du-jour at the funeral home John manages. In grand style, John jaws his way through most of the first forty minutes of the play, going through mortality and the benefits of dating stewardesses to the point where my brain came to a complete stop.

In the second scene, John’s daughter Mary (Pauline Hutton) comes by, apparently on the same day, to tell him her mother is in the hospital dying of cancer. John then stands there and makes a bunch of excuses for pretty much his entire life while Mary nails him to the wall for being a shoddy excuse for a father. It all seemed rather a bit too familiar for me, although I was distracted by listening to the characters speak the words; it sounded like good Irish accents that had not had much practice – not surprising given that this was first preview (and the only night I could come as most performances were already sold out).

Then it was the final scene, in which John starts out passed out at his desk and then gives Mark a stunning bit of bad advice about blaming women for making you feel bad when you hurt their feelings, essentially saying they’re probably trying to manipulate you and at best if they were decent they would keep their feelings to themselves. Mark, shockingly, actually decides this is bad advice, forcing John to dump a bunch of his own emotional garbage on Mark in order to save face (by earning pity). In retrospect: wow, John is just a total piece of work.

And the play, well, it’s a little bit of misery at Christmas time, the kind that makes you want to drink until you can’t remember the names of your children much less how to make your way home from the bar. I don’t feel I saw any character evolution in this, and it made me yearn, I tell you, yearn for the bigger focus of Dicken’s Carol. Since when did Christmas become the holiday for self pity? At the end of Dicken’s story, Scrooge changed, but I saw no sign of this happening for John; in fact, I expected that shortly after he went to the hospital (if he made it at all), he was about to slide back down the hole of alcoholism. It was pretty bleak. That said, it wasn’t all that long – but neither was it too particularly interesting. I’d call it a good show to perform as a high school character practice piece, but there are a million things much better available right now and in general, I’d say you should go see one of those.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on December 8, 2011. Performances continue through December 31st and are nearly entirely sold out.)

Great deal – Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutracker at the O2 arena – £55 tickets for £17

December 9, 2011

I travelled to Birmingham to see the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker (choreography by Peter Wright) and loved it. But you don’t have to because they’re bringing it to the O2 Arena in London. Per the email I got from Travelzoo, the details are:

•Save £38 on tickets to see Birmingham Royal Ballet perform this magical Christmas show
•Or, book seats worth £35 for just £12
•Perfomances take place at The O2 on 27-30 December
•The Former “X Factor” winner Joe McElderry will open the performance with Christmas songs

For full details, please go to the Travelzoo site.