Archive for August, 2012

Review – The Illusion – Southwark Playhouse

August 30, 2012

An empty Tuesday night in the quiet month of August: what to do? I scanned a friend’s Google calendar for recently viewed plays and saw he’d just been to the Southwark Playhouse for The Illusion. Ooh, an eminently affordable location – but a running time of 150 minutes. And it was about a lawyer who’d cast out his son? Hmm, hard to make a decision with the fleeting time allowed me at work to do the hard research on picking the right (and only) show I would see for two weeks. “Was it good?” I asked him via Twitter. “Yes” was my reply. So, then, I booked (hurray for having bought a Southwark Playhouse 5 ticket package and forgotten about it, so no cost), and by good fortune I discovered another Twitter friend was going the same night so I’d have someone to socialize with … ah, the world of social networking, it’s a wild one!

The play is set in a magician’s cave in what appears to be some time in the 17th century. The cafe is pretty much just – well, the Southwark Playhouse – with some cloth-covered furniture on the side of the stage to add some dimensionality. A black-suited man (Pridamant, James Clyde) enters and haughtily demands the cowering servant to fetch his mistress – the woman (Melanie Jessop) who is a magician (a woman in power, hurray!). He wants to know what happened to his son, whom he cast out years ago for reasons I never quite understood. He and the woman engage in some power play, but she finally agrees to show him his son. She then enchants him – and a group of cream clad, masked characters creeps out from the wings (or, if you prefer, from deep within the cave). The first (very handsome!) young man removes his mask, and … it’s Clindor, Pridamant’s son!

Before I say much more of anything about the play, I want to say that at this point I was sucked into the world of the show and lost my critical distance. Were we seeing Pridamant’s actual son? Were we seeing the minions of Alcandre performing the life of Clindor? Was this a ghostly vision, in which, through the mirror of the past, the true experiences of Clindor were being displayed? How was it that the servant was able to perform in the masques? Were the various performers supposed to be real people or perhaps the representations of various types, i.e. the ingenue, the scheming servant, the ridiculous fop (Adam Jackson-Smith, hysterical and, I suspect, well worth seeing again)? These puzzles, and the evolution of the father as he sees the changes in his son’s life through the various scenes (one wonders, for example, just why he wants to know what has happened to his son), kept my mind occupied enough that, even though at the end there was a grand reveal and a real theatrical joke played upon us (and Pridamant), I found myself unwilling to accept the script as written and instead kept puzzling through the various intriguing mysteries to find the real, underlying truth of the play.

To make it even a bit more delicious, the script, by a pre-Angels Tony Kushner, is full of poetry and lush phrases that manage to make the era in which the play is set come more brightly to life. I say this because rhyming plays were how things were done back when Corneille wrote this show, but obviously aren’t now; yet there are some rhyming sections and they are done in a way that is fresh and pleasant to the ear. Aaah.

Right. So, in short, I found this play charming, the performances good (I saw the younger actors as being “types” rather than actual characters, so keep this in mind if you’re finding my judgment not in synch with yours), and the evening much more brisk than you might have expected of a play supposedly so long. Given how much incredibly stale stuff is on the stages of London right now, this was as much of an unexpected treat as a crocus in February snow. Thanks to Tim for the hot tip!

(This review is for a performance that took place Tuesday, August 28th, 2012. The play continues through September 8th.)

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Review – Volcano – Vaudeville Theater

August 28, 2012

Or: Lava … And Leave her!

Once upon a time there was a brilliant playwright. His name was Noel or Tennessee or something like that*. He had written some plays that were amazing and timely and deeply illuminated the human condition. He was a success. Time went by. He kept writing but, at some point, maybe because he had been a success, the magic went away. Toward the end he might have been writing out of habit more than because he still had something to say.

This is the background from which I suspect Volcano sprung. It hasn’t been performed since it was written, and although this is supposedly because it was held back to save people from shame, I think there’s a lot to support the fact that it wasn’t rushed to the stage because, frankly, it’s not very good. It’s not even sort of good.

Actually, an argument can be made (I shall do so) that it is bad, really bad, especially if you consider that this play was written just one year before The Birthday Party. Drama had moved on since the 20s, yet as this play opens, we have a woman in a little black dress and a large rhinestone necklace hanging out in a garden while a greasy haired man in a suit – practically a mustache-twirling panto villain – explains to her in comically debonair tones why she’s made a mistake in not sleeping with him. She admonishes him to keep his distance or she will mash a rocks glass in his face – then dramatically (“dramatically”) throws it to the ground and stiffly looks away.

About four lines of dialogue in I was wondering just what sort of disaster I had belly-flopped into (though I was suspicious anyway given that the theater was half-empty). Was Nimax just desperate to get something, anything into the Vaudeville after pulling What the Butler Saw? (The set certainly looked cheap – a few little buildings and some large seashells – which supported the idea of a “anything else might work” approach.) Had they not given the actors sufficient time to rehearse? Or perhaps … the script was just a wreck and Coward was to blame?

As I watched these ridiculously dressed people spouting off these canned lines, as stereotyped as any Sun editorial, I started to feel that what I was actually watching was one of those plays within a plays … with the trope “the really, really bad play where even the actors didn’t seem to believe what they were saying.” Had I inadvertently walked into a parallel version of Noises Off? Could Coward possibly have thought any of these characters were interesting or appropriate for the fifties? I mean, the discussion of sexual desire was a bit more frank, but the hamming and false emotions, was I supposed to believe it?

Was I too far from the exit to carefully leave? Was this level of badness going to be sustained all the way until the interval?

Fortunately, when the next scene started (with new actors to break up the congealed goop between the leads), the urge to gag (my urge, not theirs) lightened, but the triviality of the dialogue and banality of the “situation” continued. Infidelity: really more boring than you might think, not inherently interesting like the script assumes. I sat there numbly watching people over dress, drink too much, and be jerks while a volcano rumbled behind them. My thought: the world wouldn’t miss them a bit if they all fell in, and my evening would perk up considerably.

And with that, I took my leave at the interval. I made it through half of it; you’re stronger than me if you can stomach more.

(This review is for a performance that took place on August 23rd, 2012. The play continues through September 29th. This play was already at the Richmond theater so if you were going to give it any slack because it was early in the run, you would be making a mistake.)

*Most decidedly not Henrik.

Review – Walking – Robert Wilson at Norfolk and Norwich Festival

August 24, 2012

Imagine if you will: the beach. Really cool art. A promenade that is really a promenade. And the art is made by Robert Wilson, shit hot theatrical all purpose genius whose Einstein on the Beach is pretty darned fresh in my mind. Now that would be an installation art experience you would have to see.

Even if it was a part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Which Walking is. And, while I don’t have any particular feelings for or against any festival (other than the Edinburgh Fringe), this did mean that to see this thing I was going to have to travel to a whole new place: in this place, Holkham, a town so small that even the bus driver whom I asked in Kings Lynn (where I was supposed to pick up my bus to get to Holkham!) had not heard of it. And to get there from London, I first had to take a train (for about two hours), and only THEN could I catch the bus for my further hour and a half on the bus to the actual destination (arriving twenty minutes later than expected).

The bonus? In the end, the public transportation thing DID totally work. British Rail delivered me on time to Kings Lynn, and the #1 Coasthopper bus did turn up as promised about five minutes after my train did, then magically turned into a #2 at Hunstanton so that I could make it the rest of the way without changing buses. And the meetup point for walking was just a five minute walk from the bus stop, in a field off of a path leading to the ocean, and clearly signed. The bus was twenty minutes later than I expected, but since I’d planned on arriving forty five minutes early (as advised), I was still on time.

Negative: I had ten minutes before things were going to start and I had not had any opportunity since 8:45 AM (when I caught my train from King’s Cross) to purchase a sandwich as First Capitol Connect don’t offer so much as a bag of crisps for sale on their trains. The instructions for the walk said to bring no food, so I hadn’t packed emergency rations, counting on a BIT more of a gap somewhere along the line to hit a sandwich shop. And if there was a sandwich shop in Holkham (or even a convenience store), I never found it. However, I ran to the nearby Victoria pub and was able, for a mere £7.95, to convince them to make me an egg and cress sandwich wrapped in foil which I ate as quickly as possible.

Note: bring food. There is none on site. An apple doesn’t cut it.

Negative: waiting. Too much waiting. We waited about 20 minutes for our pickup to the walk start site, then waited about half an hour to actually be able to start the walk. This particularly aggravated me because I could have enjoyed my little sandwich a bit more. Now, the wait at the event start point was because we were being sent through one at a time with about a five minute gap between person, but the effective point was that you had to stand there, in the lovely open air, in a f**king queue, which to be honest was the one thing I wanted least to be doing on a day which, in my mind, was going to be about being outside and walking. Given that we were 1) about to be on our feet for four hours and 2) not going to be talking to anyone else for that time, I would have much preferred it if we could have spent that time sitting in a convivial circle and visiting with each other until our number was called (as it were). Waiting became, by default, a part of this event, and it was not managed well.

So, let’s now pretend that all of the effort of getting there via public transportation and trying to get food on short notice and under duress and standing in line for half an hour did not happen, and start at the beginning of the experience as I imagine Robert Wilson planned it:

You come up to an entry to a field. In the distance is a giant box (?) of plywood, with a black curtain across the front. A yellow rain jumper clad guard bars the entry to the plywood. People are slowly, slowly walking toward the curtain, then disappearing. Perhaps they are being turned into sausages, because they do not seem to emerge anywhere.

You are now about to enter the field. A kindly, yellow rain jumper clad guide comes up and tells you your journey is about to start. She then walks beside you for a bit, helping you align yourself to the very slow, deliberate pace you are supposed to follow for this event. You then walk, slowly, to the black curtain. After a bit of instruction, the guard lets you in.

The room is totally black. You sit there and wonder when it will not be black. No light comes in at all: there is a deep booming coming from the other side of the wall. Eventually (three minutes later?) the black velvet cracks and a door opens in front of you, revealing, not a box, but an open-roofed enclosure with two story tall, brown reed covered walls on three and a half sides, a sand-covered floor, and a deep black pit in the middle (the bottom is not visible) surrounded by raked sand. Five people are stood around the edges, almost like time markers on sundial. The walls are pulsing with some kind of very deep sound. I am walked to an open position, facing the pit. Another person is walked out the gap, away from the door; after a while, someone comes through the door and is walked to the newly opened position.

After about 15 minutes (maybe 20? we weren’t allowed to bring anything that showed the time, although of course I had my phone in my pocket so I could tweet the whole thing) I was brought to the gap and shown the path, and again reminded of the slow pace. I was told to look for the white rocks that marked the path in case I lost sight of the person in front of me (which I was told I would as the path turned at various points). I then sat off.

It was a very nice day, overcast, not hot and not raining. On one side was a fenced field with cows. Ahead I could see about four other walkers. As time went on, I caught several of them, presumably separated from their companions, looking over their shoulders nervously; I couldn’t help but think of Lot’s wife.

We continued slowly, slowly walking along past a creek with rushes growing out of it; past a field with a foal napping in it; past more horses; over a newly made wooden bridge; over a specially made stile. Eventually we went up a tiny, tree covered hill, where the other walkers finally disappeared. I never felt tempted to look behind me, but I couldn’t help but feel the pressure to WALK FASTER and I saw the woman in front of me frequently having to stop herself so she didn’t overrun the elderly lady just ahead of her.

Our next art installation was … basically two tall wooden walls with about a shoulder’s width of space between them. After this, we walked on the edge of a pond.

Finally, we got to the actual sand dunes, which were riddled with holes from rabbit warrens. A dead rabbit, flattened by time, seemed a deliberately placed metaphor I wasn’t quite able to translate. Then over the hill and …

into a world of grey cubes with people sat on them. I had found the rest area! There were also two narrow tables with artistically placed bottles of water and apples (alternating) across them. I was greeted and advised to use the rest facilities and help myself to the food, and told that a particular cube was mine to sit on until a guide came by to “take me on the rest of my journey.” This area seemed jammed with people I hadn’t seen before, and, of course, since there was a gap for the walking, there was a very long wait while all of us were processed … it did feel a tiny bit like something out of a myth, and the mood music was probably supposed to help us feel that we were in a timeless place. But somehow people felt a bit rushed and uncomfortable. But I sat there on my grey cube and listened to the music and imagined myself in a Magritte painting and imagined that we were all off on heroic quests …

Then it was my turn. A guide came to me and helped recalibrate my steps so they were nice and slow, then mentioned that, as I was heading into a hilly area, I needed to be looking for white sticks instead of the stones as before.

This section of the walk, with the twisted pine trees and lovely texture of the hills, was actually more fun than the other half, as it seemed to be more close to the land of fairy tales. But I couldn’t escape the trudging of the people ahead of me. They’d stopped looking behind them, but now the woman behind me was needing to just completely stop at times to allow the woman ahead of her to keep at a reasonable distance; and I could feel the disappointment of the people behind me when I, in turn, stopped to keep the gaps level.

At last we broke out of the woods and into the pure sand dunes, and there, in the distance, was the tiny point of a pyramid – the next installation of the path. It was very iconic on the horizon and fun to walk toward and watch grow larger. It was actually about three stories tall when we finally got to it, and there was a little hole allowing us to go into it (and out again). Inside there was some kind of sound coming from overhead. I loved the space, but was hustled out by a guide as I was apparently fooling around a bit too long.

Once we’d gotten out, we were just a few steps from the very end – the front of the long beach at Holkham, beautiful with the tide out, covered with long, narrow clam shells. Above the tide line were about eight platforms facing the sea; we were encouraged to go stand on one (there was a ledge of about a foot) and then be slowly winched so our horizon line went up, up, up, away from the sea, to the sky, so we were laying on our backs, listening to the water, watching the sky. It was very nice (if initially disorienting) and I sat there for rather a while with my eyes closed, grateful the sun wasn’t shining any more brightly.

And then, of course, it began to rain. I asked to be returned to level ground, and was told I was near the end of the walk, just ahead, where there were water bottles and flapjack (yum!). So … I went and got my water and my flapjack … and was told I had a THREE MILE walk back to the start of the walk, or, if I wanted, I could go to the shuttle pickup nearby, where the minibus came by every half hour at an indeterminate time.

I realized I was in a bit of a pickle as it was getting to be the time when the bus back to King’s Lynn was only going to coming once an hour, and the rain was now coming down quite hard. I went forward toward the spot I’d been told was the turn off (“near the blue tent”), and, hoping for the best, headed back into the dunes looking for the pickup zone, only to find myself wandering lost in the sandy hills (and then the trees), only finding the occasionally sunning naturist. What had happened to our white poles and rocks? How was it, that after all of this effort to guide us for four hours, we were just completely forgotten about at the end and dumped into the middle of nowhere with nothing more than a “it’s thataway” to help us find our way back?

By the time I finally made it back to Holkham proper, I was wet, hungry, desperate for a wee, and more than just a little pissed off (did I mention hungry? that don’t bring food thing was crap). I had five minutes left until the bus came … but given the choice between two hours on a bus with a full bladder and missing the bus, I decided portapotty takes precedence. I then finally made my way back to the bus stop …

only to discover 1) I’d been looking at the Sunday schedule, and the bus now came ten minutes earlier than I’d been aiming for and

2) the bus was, for some reason, running half an hour late. The woman who’d started the walk with me was furious at the bus’ tardiness (as she thought it meant she’d miss the exchange in Hunstanton, but again it was the same bus) as she’d gone full speed through most of the installation and had been waiting for it for all of the time it was supposed to have been there. But to me, it just meant I got to catch the bus and not wait for another hour, and I was grateful.

We sat next to each other on the way back and talked about the show. To her, it was “zen fascism,” a phrase I thought hysterical and somewhat mood lifting in its implied rage. She, too, had travelled from London for this event, and she, too, agreed with me: it was just really not all that much in the end, and certainly not worth the tremendous effort we’d made to get there (including, for me, taking a day’s holiday from work). One open top box, one wooden wall, one cute lunch area, the pyramid, the platforms. Well, the platforms were cool, but they still weren’t worth the effort, and the overall collapse of the event at the end of the trail really just made the whole day incredibly painful.

Ah well. Next time, I’ll just take a walk on the beach, and pack a sandwich.

(This review for walking was based on the events of August 21st, 2012. Signage may have been improved by now. The event continues through September 2nd.)

Mini-review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night – Apollo Theater

August 16, 2012

What more could you want on a lovely summer’s night than to descend into a dark room full of people fighting, abusing each other, and hitting every type of drug under the sun? Does this sound like your idea of hell … or perhaps just another weekend retreat at the family cabin?

Well, if you have a life list centered on seeing all of the classics of American theater, going to A Long Day’s Journey Into Night is exactly the right plan for a summer evening, given that after spending three hours listening to people talk about fog and heroin and madness, there’s a profound relief in knowing you’ll be going out into a moist, gentle twilight. And despite having some twenty plus years of theater-going under my belt, I can’t remember even having the opportunity to watch it before. It’s no surprise, really, given its dour nature (as Carmen says in Curtains: “I put on The Ice Man Cometh and nobody cameth!”) it’s not the kind of thing to attract the after-work hordes: so I knew that when a West End revival came along, with a money cast (i.e. David Suchet, so excellent in All My Sons, hoorah!), it was time for me to go, depressive topic be damned.

I really didn’t know too much about this show before I went (something about the mom being not quite right and it being quasi-autobiographical), so there was a lot of suspense for me in watching it play out. The setting is a dreary New England summer house, circa 1910 or so: there are cars (and streetcars) and telephones, so the feeling is of pre-war near modernity, with the whisper of the Victorian era in the air. The American “stories” of “raising yourself by the bootstraps” are here, as well as an immigrant theme (so different to hear after six years of nearly-constant British theater!); there’s also the great American fault of shameful venality. These are timeless themes, but the era is fixed as one in which certain health problems cannot be cured, and certain … other problems … are not really acknowledged. This is what the play dances around: the mom (Laurie Metcalf) has not been well, but what is the cause of her illness? And why is her family worried that she will fall prey to it again?

This might be a small mystery, but it sets the stage for a tug of war between the dad (David Suchet) and his two sons, both of whom are seen as failures by their parents. The eldest is a failed actor, the pale shadow of his father’s success; the other seems to be a generally useless occasional writer (and seems like the O’Neill stand-in). As the play goes on, you can see that all three of the men seem to hate each other to the core; yet, in that repulsive way that families have, they also love each other and are tightly bound to each other. But do they hate more than they love? This leads to the ultimate mystery, as each of the men (and even mom) become more and more abusive: why to these people spend time with each other at all? Yet unlike many of the plays I’ve seen recently where I felt trapped in a party with a bunch of horrible people I couldn’t wait to escape (Ecstasy, Chicken Soup with Barley), the rifts revealed in this family were so bloody and gaping I couldn’t tear my eyes away. It reminded me of Ibsen, where the secrets in the relationships are slowly revealed to the audience’s breathless horror. Really, I just loved it, and the ending line was a diamond ripping silk. Aaaaahhhh. And we escaped.

While both of the sons seem perfect in their roles, I had some questions about both Suchet and Metcalf. First, overall, the accents: would Americans of 1910 really have sounded just like they do on TV today? I’d expect that when angry the father (James) might have slipped into a tiny bit of a brogue, but he never sounded like anything other than a clipped accent, non-determinate American: not even clearly a New Englander, or a New Yorker, but sort of a mid-Western/California type. It’s exactly how he sounded in All My Sons, but I don’t think it felt right for the era: it was David Suchet, but, well, okay, it’s David Suchet in the role of James the dad, and he was still good to watch even if he never succeeded in leaving himself behind.

Metcalf, also, seemed terribly modern despite her hair and lace cape, and was occasionally too … buttery? I guess I wanted a bit more of a Southern belle or something, a reflection in her acting of the convent in which the character had grown up. At the beginning I found her too stiff; when she was slipping, her tones were robotic; but, ultimately, as she went down the rabbit hole, she took me right with her and I wasn’t watching Laurie Metcalf, I was watching a beloved mother collapsing in front of a son who loved her dearly and was bleeding with sorrow about his inability to keep her from sliding away from him. I saw in these horrible, messed up people a universal reflection of every unhappy family, and certainly of the unhappy family I had been a part of; and I was completely bought into the play and into the text. A Long Day’s Journey it was called but when it started moving into that eternal night I could no more walk way from it then any of these people could walk away from each other. I was entranced. In the end, I agreed, this is truly a classic play, and I was glad to see it, thrilled with the truth of its writing, yet just a tiny bit grateful when its ending came. There was no release for this miserable family, but they gave me wings to soar, out into a summer twilight of quiet London streets, grateful for the life that had let me see such a great play done so well.

(This review is for a performance seen on Thursday, Ugust 9th, 2012. A Long Day’s Journey Into Night continues at the Apollo through August 18th. There are many deals available.)

Mini-review – Julius Caesar – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Noel Coward Theater

August 12, 2012

It’s hard not to get a little more excited about shows when you can see them building up day by day. This is what led me to get tickets for the RSC’s Julius Caesar at the Noel Coward theater – something about watching the load in made me much more excited about this show than I might have been, given that I’m way past my standard annual Shakespeare limit (four so far and I doubled up on Henry V). But I’d never seen this play before, and they had some seats going for £12.50 (if you buy them at the box office; otherwise there’s an extortionate £2 charge per ticket), so I sweet talked my roommate and next thing you know there we are about the 2nd night of previews. Woo hoo! (Note: I couldn’t find any discounts for this show anywhere, but the highest tier of the gods was closed, so if I’d bought there I would have done better than for my irritatingly restricted side balcony seat – much leaning forward was necessary.) I didn’t really know anything about this show, other than having someone tell me it was an all-black cast.

The setting for this version of Julius Caesar is most decidedly Africa: to me, it felt a bit like what I might expect of South Africa (especially with the rubber tire “necklace”), but the shamanic figure and music didn’t give me a solid setting: it was more of a feeling of any place where dictators might rise and fall, where armies of men stood ready to fight at a moment, where the populace was ready to cheer or riot as necessary. It seemed very much to be Anycountry, but for the undercurrent of a total dedication to freedom and rejecting tyranny: that made it Rome, ancient Rome all the way, no matter what clothes anyone was wearing or what sort of guns they carried. Shakespeare’s words held true, and even in a world of cement blocks crumbled by war, to me we were a few blocks from the Forum, talking about a way of life and an ethos that had long since vanished.

The sad thing, really, is that the words of this production were frequently hard to enjoy. Without studying the work beforehand, it often happens that you just have to let things slip in Shakespeare and figure you’ll catch up with it later when you read the script; but I was really struggling to hear what people were saying on stage. I think the ambient noise and the frequent shouting were just turning things into a mush. Still, the emotional power shone through: of Marc Antony’s manipulation; of Brutus’ abuse of Cassius; of the murderous power of a mob. It all goes by in an incredibly rush, though oddly they’ve decided to put an interval in shortly after the assassination scene (this not present during the Stratford run). Still … a strong production and a good show, nicely framed to show the key elements of truth in the political world of the present.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 10th, 2012. It continues through September 15th.)

Mini-review – Mack and Mabel – Southwark Playhouse

August 11, 2012

I wasn’t going to go to the Southwark Playhouse’s big summer musical as I had never heard of it, but a few of my Twitter friends chided me and said I was missing out on something that was sure to please me. And, actually, they were right: a musical by the team that created Hello, Dolly! with a theme of silent movies – or, rather, set in the silent movie era and based on the lives of Max Sennet and his star Mabel Normand – I couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. It’s actually a really good show to be reviving this year, what with the success of both Hugo and The Artist – and as a true-blue fan of the silent movies, it was practically custom-made for me. (And I had seen Mack Sennet’s name many times on the credits of silents, but I’m actually not particularly good with the history of this era, so I walked in to it having very few expectations.)

There were several thrills for me in this production. First, the songs are, as my friends promised, lush and dense, full of characterization and image, with melodies memorable for more than the few minutes that they are sung. Second, the leading lady, Laura Pitt-Pulford, has the kind of charisma that makes it hard for you to tear your eyes (or ears) away from her. Is she on stage? Might she sing again? I’m sorry, is Mack trying to have a moment? His stiffness gave him no chance of standing out against her bright star. Ah, lordy, how could this woman possibly be carrying the main role in a show I got to see for only fifteen pounds!

Third, the production values of this show utterly surpassed anything I’ve come to expect from the fringe theater. Aside from the investment in costumes, they’d also put some serious money into choreography and *swoon* served up a tap dancing number (“Hundreds of Girls”) that had me calculating the best date for a return visit before the show had even finished. And then the miracle of Mabel swirling around the stage singing from atop of an iron cherry picker – wow, Jesus, I was completely flattened. WHAT WAS GOING ON HERE? I was at some little cheap show in a dirty little theater (gah, the dust kicked up by the tap dancing was vile!) and it was BLOWING ME AWAY.

And then, the end, your heart breaks, it’s all a bunch of make believe (Hollywood make believe, only through the eyes of the Great White Way) but it makes you feel just right, sad and nostalgic about everything that has been lost, about everyone that’s ruined a relationship because they wanted to make some kind of a point rather than actually listening (and acting on) what their heart said. And that message held true to me as if it had come across from a thousand years, not just the forty since it was written or the hundred since it was (in its imagined original state) new. Two lovers, both such strong personalities, both destroyed by their own egos, both suffering because they couldn’t bend enough to love each other a little more. Ah, god, could you want anything more more from a beautiful little show stuffed into a tiny little space with all of its heart just bursting out all over the place? It was Mabel Normand all over. And it was great. A fantastic way to spend a steamy summer night, and a fantastic bargain to boot.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 2nd, 2012. Mack and Mabel continues at the Southwark Playhouse until August 25th.)

Review – Curtains – Landor Pub Theater

August 8, 2012

What? Another Kander and Ebb musical I haven’t seen? That makes two in less than a month – how fantastic! I saw an ad for Curtains when I was at the Landor Theater for Flora the Red Menace and I bought tickets to go see it within about 24 hours. I mean, c’mon! A murder mystery musical … by Kander and Ebb! I was surprised I hadn’t actually had someone knock on my door and direct market it to me, it was so perfectly suited to my tastes.

The night we came, the cast had the kind of electric air you get on opening night (and I think it was press night), all VERY on and broadcasting far beyond the tiny confines of the Landor (there are about four row total and room for about 80-100 in the theater). The stage was set up on the diagonal, so that a curtained proscenium blocked off a small triangle of the stage, creating either a big “front of stage” look for the scenes where we were “watching a show,” but allowing it to change the large space to being “backstage” by moving the props from in front of the curtain to behind (very clever!). Note that because of this, you may get a better overall experience if you sit in the corner area of the audience (the seats are on two sides in an L formation), though there is also enough action right in front of the “curtains” that this may be a matter of opinion. (I sat about the fifth seat in from the door, second row, and was generally happy with my view except for during the dance numbers.)

The story is fairly simple: a group of talented people are performing a show they hope to take to Broadway, and a member of the team is murdered. A detective quickly shows up to figure out “whodunnit,” but in a twist, he is a musical theater fan who decides to devote his efforts to fixing the show as well as fighting crime. So we get to watch the evolution of a musical while listen to the various people deal with their issues with each others (as actors, dancers, composers, producers, etc.) in high “musical” style … while the mystery unfolds. Particularly outstanding were Buster Skeggs as producer Carmen Bernstein (and the fantastic number “It’s a Business”) as well as Bryan Kennedy as director Christopher Belling. I felt like I was sitting in a West End house every time they were on stage – it was fantastic! Unfortunately the two female leads just weren’t able to hold up to this level of quality, but I found myself in a forgiving mood given the enjoyable material.

It’s hard to judge this show well as it is, in part, a musical about a bad musical. So some of the songs are insipid (the “In a Boat” song that is reprised several times) and some of the dancing is really not very good at all (i.e. “Bambi’s big number,” which I thought was heinous but was later referred to as the proof of her genuine talents), but I’m not sure when the not good elements were actually deliberate. Kander and Ebb’s fantastic musical style comes through at many points (and I couldn’t help but feel like I was being referred to in the very clever “What Kind of Man,” which slams theater critcs), but … some of the songs seemed soft when I thought they weren’t supposed to.

Yet, overall, I have to say I came out of this show both full of joy and (eep!) whistling the songs, and _that_ is the yardstick by which I judge success. Not every song has to be a miracle, not every performance needs to be at eleven. Curtains was a great night out, and a damned steal at £20 – one of the shows that makes me feel embarrassed at the riches London offers me for mere pennies.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 1st, 2012. It continues through September 1st.)

Mini-review – Soho Cinders – Soho Theater

August 5, 2012

My reasons for attending Soho Cinders were not the strongest. I needed to entice a down friend out of her house and a musical seemed like just the trick, but given that it was a new musical and expensive to boot (I wound up paying 35 quid for our tickets), I feared it might leave us both disappointed. Stiles and Drewe did a nice job with Betty Blue Eyes, but … well, then there’s the part of me that always wants to see a new show, especially a new musical, given how few new musicals are created in a given year. So we went, and I brought fancy chocolates from Paul Young and hoped they would console if the evening wasn’t going well.

The space is very intimate – about 150 people, I think, with a good rake. However, the lower half of the stalls were FREEZING. And all of the “stalls” bench seats were that horrible Soho theater special, two lobes all the way across each row, the forward one raised just high enough to slowly cut your circulation off during the course of a show. I’d say you’d be totally safe with any seat in this house, so no need to splurge on the most expensive ones – they won’t be any more comfortable.

The set up of the play is that a Soho rent boy (Robbie, played by Tom Milner) has had the misfortune to fall in love with a politician (James Prince, played by Michael Xavier) … who is in the closet and engaged. Said rent boy is also occasionally providing services for the politician’s main campaign donor (Lord Bellingham, played by Neil McCaul). Cue Robbie showing up at a fund raising ball that both men are attending … it’s, as he says, “Awkward!”

And thus you get some of the key elements of the Cinderella story, with Robby running away and leaving his phone behind. The show takes on other areas using a very panto-y approach, replacing the Wishy Washy washhouse with a laundromat that Robbie runs with his best friend Velcro (the adorable Amy Lennox). Comic relief is provided by the very trashy and rather dragged up stepsisters, Dana (Beverly Rudd) and Clodagh (Susie Chard), who own a strip club next door – and want to expand into the laundrette. The parallels are easy enough to see and provide a reasonable framework to hang this original story from. (For full details and song snippets, see the synopsis on the Stile and Drew site).

The question is, of course: does it work? For me, the answer is no, and this comes down in a great deal to the songwriting. I want musicals to have songs that are catchy, that send me home whistling a new tune. Now, I laughed my head off at the Evil Stepsisters’ song “I’m so over men,” and there were quite a few very smart lyrics over the course of the evening, but the individual songs seemed to disappear into an unmemorable morass of tunefulness that lacked definition. The night before I’d gone to a second-rate Kander and Ebb, and walked out singing, “It’s a Business:” at the end of this show, I struggled to remember the melody of even a single one of the songs even as I stood in the lobby afterwards. This is not good.

As a play with some singing (and not very interesting dancing, so let’s call it “movement”), it’s not bad, taken from a lighthearted panto for adults standpoint. Robby is just terribly sincere and adorable, and James Prince is awfully sweet in that “I’m confused about what I want” kind of way. And, well, the stepsisters steal the show, what with their garish clothing, panty flashing, and filthy mouths. Fantastic!

However … I think it’s time someone had just a little bit of a look at this play from a bi visibility standpoint. James Prince’s fiancee says she loves him and they had an active sex life … so why can’t she just accept his bisexuality instead of saying that she’s going to leave him because she doesn’t want to have to share? Both the fiancee and Velcro make it out that men are either gay or straight, an attitude that actively disappears a large swath of Soho denizens. Prince is actually far more of a villain than he’s made out to be in the play, because he’s incapable of being honest with the person he says he wants to be a part of his life. Why can’t he accept himself as he is and try to find a way to make it work?

Maybe it’s ultimately because fairy tales need easy answers and bisexual people just don’t fit as nicely into boxes as this play needed. But I think that, even though this play seems very modern for saying that you can run for office and be gay (and that’s a step forward), that being bi would not be okay. Because in fairytales, people don’t have to worry about being torn between two different elements of their identity: they are good or bad, pretty or ugly, loving or cruel. They can’t be confused. And I agree, if life were really never like that, we would truly be living a life in which there were nothing but happy endings.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Saturday, August 4th, at 8 PM. There were some problems with miking and sound cues that I assume will sorted out in a day or two. It continues through September 9th.)