Archive for December, 2012

Mini-review – The River – Royal Court Theater

December 30, 2012

There’s no doubt in my mind that for theater fanatics in London, The River was the event of the year: a new play by one of the writers with the biggest buzz in the biz, yet staged in a theater that only holds about 90 people, and with tickets only for sale on the day (20 for in-person buyers and the rest online). Me and my theater loving acquaintances were not pleased. Many of us saw it as a publicity stunt; most of us doubted the play could really only be successful in a small space (was Butterworth really being that much of a princess?); some spent months planning their schemes to ensure they could get a ticket (I’ll admit the day of scheme took care of most scalping possibilities) while many of us just figured it wasn’t going to happen. I, personally, saw this as the lynchpin in letting my membership of the Royal Court lapse despite generally enjoying the work done there. What was the point in supporting a theater that would leave me, as a member, completely out in the cold? I was so disappointed by the whole thing I put it entirely out of my mind as something that just wasn’t going to happen.

Months went by, the show opened, and exactly twice early on I was at my computer at the right time and actually saw the “for sale” button lit up on the Royal Court’s ticket page. But somehow I just couldn’t be quick enough. A few people I knew went and said it was good; the reviews came out and agreed; I gave up because I hadn’t left every day of the run open in the hope that one of those days I would buy tickets and just got on with my life.

And then, well, a friend of mine said he had a tip about how to work the computer system to get to the tickets about 10 seconds faster than anyone else, and on the last Thursday of the run I managed to have an afternoon free and have my act together enough to be right there, online, perfectly at the moment I needed to to have my sweet little booking scam ready to go (one of the tips being to make sure you were already logged in). Bang bang, I was off to a matinee of the show I thought I was never going to get to see! I could finally decide for myself if a one act play was really worth the hype.

Embarrassingly (given what a grinch I was about the whole thing), without the poison of the ticketing system hanging over me, there is no way I can deny that this was anything but an excellently written play, beautifully performed. I found the writing left me with more questions that it answered, one of my favorite situations to be left at at the end of the play. The Hemingway-like dialogue was very intense and paired nicely with Ted Hughes poetry (and of course the fishing setting, and the general hypermasculinity of the play and its lead character), but what I wanted to know was: did someone die here? Was it one of the women? Did he push her in the river (and why), or did she fall? The echoing nature of the play just made it all seem so possible, and seem so very likely that the way the two women interchanged with each other was because one was a ghost. What Butterworth couldn’t teach Conor McPherson about how to write a spooky play! But then, I wondered … was the guy just living with his memories? Or was he maybe, as he said his grandfather did, reliving the same behavior patterns with different people, stuck in a loop he could never break out of?

The play ended, leaving me surprised and exhilarated. None of my theories could be proven, but it had all seemed very real and was enlessly watchable (and an amusing counterpoint to the similarly structured Ding Dong The Wicked, which I saw barely a month before). British playwrights, Jez spanks you: watch and learn at the feet of the master.

(This very belated review is for a performance seen on Thursday, November 15th, 2012. Since the play is long closed, I didn’t worry about spoilering it. Thanks to Andy for helping me get in.)

Review – The Nutcracker – Bavarian State Ballet at the Bavarian State Opera House

December 29, 2012

My very first ballet was the Bavarian State Ballet’s Nutcracker, way back in 1981, I think, or possibly in 1990. Time, it passes, things change, and I figured, while technically I was going to see this ballet again, in fact it would seem like it was new. The only think I remembered about it from before was that it did not have a Christmas theme like every other Nutcracker I’d seen. My (German dwelling) uncle said that’s just how it was; I thought perhaps they’d changed the staging because we were watching it in June.

That said, I’m convinced that this was absolutely not the Nutcracker I saw long ago, but a completely revised version. This is so far removed from every Nutcracker that I’ve ever seen that not only does it not have dancers performing in mouse heads (hurray!) or a giant Christmas tree, it has NONE of the traditional dances (well, mostly) or interpretations (i.e. “It’s about Clara becoming a woman,” “It’s about Clara discovering true love”). Instead, it has a narrative that I found utterly compelling, one that allows for excellent dancing in the utterly coherent first act (shock!) AND sets up a second act that, well, I just wanted to sit down and watch bits of it all over right away.

So what is this incredible innovation? Simple and obvious: Clara (called Marie, played by Katherina Markowskaja) is a little girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina. She starts the show playing with a Dresdener porcelain statue of dancer, then with her own paper doll ballet theater. Drosselmeier (Cyril Pierre) is a dance teacher; not some mysterious magician who conjures up dancing harlequins, but a fop and a fool. His _important_ gift to Clara is not a nutcracker, but her first pair of toe shoes.The gift to us is a first act in which there is a party of mixed young and old but no children (other than Clara), so we have adult soldiers (not children) dancing with their girlfriends during the group dance scenes. Imagine: a corps of adult men dancing the first act of the Nutcracker, very much in character as they showed off to each other and the women. What a pleasure it was to watch!

The transitional scene between the real world (where Clara desperately wants to dance with the adults) and the dream world takes place as Clara runs downstairs with her Nutcracker man … to try on her toe shoes. She does, and can’t dance in them, but falls asleep on the floor … and I waited for a tree to appear … or a cuckoo clock … but instead it was just Drosselmeier, and as he lifted away the walls of the room of Clara’s house, he revealed … a ballet studio all done in silhouette, cream and black, like the paper cut outs of Clara’s theater. MY GOD IT WAS SO BEAUTIFUL and for me pure theatrical magic.

The second half was constructed as “Clara attends the ballet class and watches classical ballets performed to the Nutcracker Suite.” I was enchanted by seeing the “greatest hits” of classical ballet done as extracts to very different music: so we had “The Living Garden” (aka “Le Jardin Animé” from Le Corsaire) to Waltz of the Flowers; “The Pharaoh’s Daughter” (a man in woman in Egyptian costume dancing to the “Arabian Dance,” really gorgeous); “Esmerelda and the Fool;” “The Chinese Bird” (Mai Kono dancing with Cyril Pierre – I was thinking of her as the Nightingale from Hans Christian Anderson; “Dancing Lieutenants” instead of the Russian dance. Clara tried to get involved with many of the dances (most adorably in the Neapolitain dance) until finally Drosselmeier let her dance by herself. While I think it would have been nice if this were the highlight, instead it was the Grand Pas de Deux with Clara’s sister Louise (Lucia Lacarra) and her refigured soldier boyfriend Gunther (Maxim Chashchegorov). My god, he did an overhead lift to a drop that had me gasping as all contact seemed to be lost before she magically did not hit the floor; and Lacarra was just so jaw-droppingly beautiful in that “what little girls dream ballerinas look like” kind of way.

Oh, I’m sure there was more I could say about the dancing, but I really just went to enjoy myself and not to sit there taking notes, and I was just hoping for “good.” Instead of that weak experience, I found my heart swelled with joy; I smiled; I laughed out loud; I was emotionally satisfied in a way I never thought I could be watching The Nutcracker. Damn. Now that was a good night out!

(This review is for the evening performance that took place on December 27th, 2012. If you want to see it next year, try buying tickets in September as it does sell out very quickly – I bought mine in October and some performances were already sold out – and I believe the people outside fishing for single tickets did NOT meet with success.)

Mini-review – Aurora – Theater of Magic at the Prinzregententheate

December 27, 2012

I thought it was quite funny that just two weeks after Matthew Bourne’s reimagined Sleeping Beauty, I was off to see another version, but this time with “Acrobatics! Magic! and Light!” – or so the ads promised. Aurora, by the Theater of Magic, was booked for a week in Munich right around Christmas and boy, they chose their timing right, as the house was packed full of people who’d paid 50 euros a head to entertain themselves and their kids over the holidays. What was I in for?

As it turns out, it was a night of substandard acrobatics and dancing loosely held together by the Sleeping Beauty narrative and staffed entirely with second rate Russian performers. The moments of imagination were nearly all overwhelmed either by sloppy execution – women getting scarves wrapped wrong around them, non-synchronization when groups were performing together, plain old bad dancing – or stained by a general sort of cheapness and tawdriness of all the set dressings. And can we mention the fact that the fairies all looked like hookers? Since when are platform heels proper fairy attire?

We DID get people doing great flips off of trampolines; wolf-headed men somersaulting from spring-loaded stilt legs; a very nice number in which two hooker fairies spun from hoops over the stage; and a genuine attempt to make Carabosse sympathetic by showing all of the other fairies picking on her. The best bit was the attempt by various young men to awaken Aurora; one shot off a cannon; another (a male gymnast swinging on a single bar) summoned a giant wind; my favorite was an opera singer who did Papageno’s song from the Magic Flute while balancing on a giant ball. But … are there really so many people with so much half-baked talent and no one around to polish them into a good act, or maybe get some less polyester costumes for them? There was certainly a spectacle, but like the gimcrack fireworks shooting off when Carabosse lost her temper, it was a damp squib, with fizzle when it needed sizzle. Ah well, if nothing else, it killed two hours pretty well and thanks to my uncle I didn’t have to pay for the ticket.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on December 25th, 2012.)

Review – Dance of Death – Donmar Warehouse West End at Trafalgar Studios

December 20, 2012

In the season of Nutcrackers, Christmas puddings, and panto, I thought nothing would break up the sugary monotony better than a little bit of Scandinavian realism. That’s right, right in the middle of Christmas week I booked myself a ticket for Strindberg’s Dance of Death at the Trafalgar Studios. Counter-programming? You’re darned tooting. I figured after Jack and the Beanstalk, the Messiah, and two Dick Whittingtons I’d be VERY ready for something bleak that made me feel like humanity wasn’t worth saving.

As it turns out, I was TOTALLY right. The Dance of Death was so negative and full of hate – and so beautifully active – that it (perversely) left me feeling elated at the end of the evening. I love Strindberg for his incredibly realistic portrayals of the twisted outcomes of people’s long-term interference in each other’s minds. In this case we’ve got Edgar (Kevin R McNally) and Alice (Indira Varma), two people who’ve been married for just shy of twenty-five years and seem to have hated each other for most of it. Edgar’s in the army and has a heavy drinking habit; Alice is proud and beautiful and conniving, but no more so than he is. He craves death; she is anxious for him to get on with it so she can move on to a better phase of her life; he’s holding on just to keep her from getting remarried. Was there ever a stronger picture of marital concord?

And yet somehow, they stay together, and the arrival of an old friend (Kurt, Daniel Lapaine) just seems like an opportunity for them to throw new balls of shit at each other. Kurt, of course, has no idea what he’s got into. Does he need to save Alice? Does he need to save (the seriously ill) Edgar? Or, in fact, does he need to save himself? He manages to get into a compromised enough position that he winds up on his stomach, on the floor, licking Alice’s boot. I never figured out to what extent Alice was playing him for a fool or Edgar was playing both of them in his own game; at the end, I think, maybe it was Strindberg playing with all of us, making us wonder just what it was going on between this couple for so long. A great mystery, but with great performances that kept me thoroughly absorbed in the paint-peeling spitefulness being splashed around like bucketsfull of acid. Strindberg sold me, the actors sold me, and somehow, at the very end, I found myself laughing at Edgar and Alice and the ridiculous situation they were in. Life is just a game, and if you can’t have a little fun playing with each other’s minds, you just haven’t been trying hard enough.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, December 19th, 2012. It runs through January 5th. My tickets were about £25 quid and it was well worth it!)

Review – Midnight’s Pumpkin – Kneehigh at Battersea Arts Center

December 17, 2012

Ah, Kneehigh – for you and me, it is the love/hate relationship. But for all that I loved Brief Encounter, how long will the name keep enticing me to come back and see shows that are not just lacking in theatrical magic, but vile or … worse …. boring?

Well, it hasn’t happened often enough yet, because I went ahead in July and bought tickets for their latest show, Midnight’s Pumpkin, billed as a family friendly Christmas time thing sort of based on Cinderella and for prices higher than I would have paid if I’d waited (see Theatremonkey.com for details). Ah well, still, it’s not like £20 is going to kill me …

Anyway, the deal is the big space at Battersea Arts Centre has been transformed into an in the round performance area, with a big open space in the middle that you access via a series of changing rooms. For extra fun, we’re encouraged to put on costumes (after the first interval) and to become a part of the ball. I found the invitation to dance quite enticing given the music they were playing … all sorts of disco and 80’s tunes (in fact, the evil stepfamily’s post-interval dance to “Temptation” by Heaven 17 was one of the highlights of the evenings for me) not so suited to the under 10 crowd but likely perfect for their parents.

But I digress. The play, itself, is a variation on Cinderella: our heroine is, actually, called Midnight, and the narrator is a pumpkin she grew. Rather than being a repressed girl in tattered clothes who spends her time cleaning a mansion, she’s a short, geeky teen (with big glasses) whose big-hearted but somewhat clueless dad thinks a pre-made family of older, fashion-obsessed sisters is just the thing she needs to get past grieving over the loss of her mother. There are also some cute mice that move the action along and keep getting confused about her name, and a band, which accompanies songs that the various characters sing (all forgettable).

For me, one of the big mysteries of this show was Prince Charming. Played as a completely egotistical jerk who is promoting his bride search on Facebook and Twitter, he seems like the perfect opposite of a good companion for Midnight: we want her to escape and be happy, but is being with this cretin actually a win for such a sensitive soul? I found myself rather hoping for a different ending, in which the prince is turned down and perhaps chooses to marry one of the two sisters, both of whom seemed well suited to him (except for their inconveniently large feet).

This, however, was not to be. Midnight wants the prince, and the moment in which they recognize their love for each other was the best in the show: she is suspended from a hoop from the ceiling, doing aerial acrobatics, occasionally touching down for some pirouettes in her lovely red pointe shoes. Then a shower of silver glitter falls from the ceiling. Aaah! Just lovely! And Midnight is not just cute and petite but massively strong and graceful! What a heroine!

But, ultimately, not enough to save this show from being fairly mediocre, at least if you’re over 12. I suspect that between the dancing, the audience interaction, the costuming, the lightheartedness, and the supporting food and drinks, that if you have a kid this might be a fine evening. But for me, my buttons were not pushed, and the contrast between the vile attitude of the prince and humanistic inclinations of Midnight were too strong for me to overcome them in the interest of Making The Required Narrative Happen. If her fairy pumpkin’s advice can be to not wear synthetic underwear, surely he could have gone off piste enough to warn her against marrying egotistical jerks?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 14th, 2012. The show continues through January 13th.)

Mini-review – Kiss Me Kate – Old Vic (transfer from Chichester)

December 14, 2012

There’s nothing like the feeling of going to see a musical by one of the best composers EVER for the VERY FIRST TIME and knowing NOTHING about it but excitedly anticipating how very WONDERFUL it will be! All of those instant classic songs waiting to become earworms! Those characters you can’t forget! The dancing! The magic!

And then, I’m afraid, there was my trip to Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic. I admit, my primary reason for going was actually seeing Clive Rowe – my number one theatrical pal was in town and we were both hoping to catch Clive on stage (since he was taking a break from dame-ing at the Hackney Empire). Oddly, my friend and I have exactly opposite tastes when it comes to Cole Porter, as I love him, while Jonathan … well, he likes Rent.

But … but … I walked out of this show scratching my head. What was really so great about the songs at all? Now, both “Too Hot” and its associated dance number were fabulous, and “Always True to You in My Fashion” was classic bad girl material, but … I love Porter for his fantastically witty lyrics and rhyme schemes, which seemed generally NOT PRESENT. Did he just run out of creative juice between 1934 and 1948? Who in the world pronounces “Bianca” the way he suggests?

And, I hate to say it, but … the show dragged. I got bored. I’d be briefly engaged again, and there’d be some kind of uninspiring dialogue. Then FOOF there’d be some great stagecraft (I loved the sets and the costumes ALERT DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE) but AGH OH NO it’s Holly Dale Spencer overacting Lois again MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP!

Now, Hannah Waddington was lovely and had a great voice (and looked fantastic) and there was some (but not enough) chemistry with her and Alex Bourne but Clive was woefully underused, and it’s wrong, wrong I tell you, to see a musical of this position in the canon and walk out thinking, “I’m so glad I only paid £16 to see that.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 10th, 2012. It continues through March 2nd.)

Good deal – 1927’s Animals and Children at the National for £18

December 13, 2012

One of my very favorite shows of 2011 was 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Street, a hallucinatory combination of animation, live action, cabaret music, and Rodchenko-style graphics, operating seamlessly in the service of a Gorey-esque story of wild children fighting to take back their city from the government. Sound all a bit of pre-Riot fun? It’s back at the National this winter and I highly urge you to see it, especially since there are affordable tickets available courtesy of the Metro – either enter promo code METRO18 into the order form online at the National’s website or call them (0207 452 3000) and quote “Metro18.”

Preview – Messiah by Candlelight – Apollo Chamber Choir and Orchestra at Saint John’s Smith Square

December 13, 2012

With so many Messiahs to choose from, it’s hard to get a Handel on which performance you should see (couldn’t help myself, sorry!). This year I have the good fortune of going to see the Apollo Chamber Orchestra’s production at Saint John’s Smith Square. I spoke with conductor David Cherniak and asked him: what is special about your Messiah? This is his response.

“Apollo Chamber orchestra started 1989, a professional group with new people regularly added to keep it fresh, while still keeping the feel and style similar, with a warm and generous sound. The choir is freelance, assembled for choral concerts. Messiah we started doing 12 years ago and have pretty consistently used the same soloists so there is a team feel to it although the choir has changed a bit. The consistency means our production has a good, solid sound.

“I use my own edition of the score using the best of the best for both the orchestra and choir parts. You can’t do everything that’s in the book because it’s changed so much and there have been so many different versions. That said, our version stays consistent from year to year and suits the singers we have. It’s a sensible approach to take: do the best research but then interpret it yourself. [Handel] took many different approaches so we, like him, have chosen an approach that works for us. To do it all would be too long! Everybody does [the first section] in its entirely but some of two or three will always have to be cut. At the end, we include the soprano aria “If God Be For Us,” because I like it so much and to have [it] paired with the “The Trumpets Shall Sound” sets us up beautifully for the final amen.

“Our audience can be people that have come to hear us before, others are tourists or people who love St John’s (the sound and how it looks), and then people who just love the Messiah. It just sets up Christmas beautifully!”

(The Apollo Chamber Choir and Orchestra will be performing Messiah by Candlelight on Sunday, December 16th, at 7:30 PM at Saint John’s Smith Square. Nearest Tube station Westminster. Review tickets were provided by GBZ management.)

Mini-review – Our Boys – Duchess Theater

December 10, 2012

Seven days, nine shows, but Monday’s option not decided. “A play about soldiers!” my gay friend proposes. “A play about soldiers,” I sigh. His obsession with the armed forces is in complete opposition to my tastes, but he’s a guest, my other (gentlemen theater fanatic) friends have praised the show, and he’s promised to go for day seats. Even though they were a bit rich at £20, I thought it would have been churlish to say no.

Who would have expected it, but this low-key drama turned out to be a highlight of a dense theatrical week. It was neither maudlin nor patriotic, but level-headed, genuinely funny, and engaging. Given it was set in a hospital and had characters that included some severely wounded men, you would have expected it to either go for obvious tragedy or nauseating hero-worship; but instead, it focused on character and leavened the story it slowly built with comedy appropriate for young men working in a very male environment (dating and cock jokes galore). The emphasis, to me, was about the work that is army life; a way out of a dead end world in which those who aren’t born with the silver spoon don’t have many options. And it looks at what it means to be in that world and have the advantages, and how even the army doesn’t level them out; and how any job, even a crappy one, may really be one worth fighting for.

To my pleasure, the 1980s setting meant lots of music that I enjoyed (as well as providing a very specific historical context), but I feel the story, as it ran, mostly transcended its era. In retrospect, I can’t help but compare it with the far less funny and genuinely offensive Privates on Parade, which sacrificed story for stereotype and naked bodies for naked souls. You’ve got one week left to catch the good play about soldiers currently on in the West End: and, for what it’s worth, it’s the Duchess you ought to be heading to, for a night of genuinely enjoyable theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 3rd, 2012. It ends soon.)

Mini-review – The Architects – Shunt at the Biscuit Factory via National Theater

December 9, 2012

It is a sad, sad thing when the highlight of a night at the theater is the line to the bathroom. In this case it was a single, glowing line, set in the cement of a factory floor and leading into the darkness, very much like the string Ariadne used to help Theseus find his way out of the minotaur’s lair. But this was the finest moment of subtle artistry of the evening. For a show that was supposed to be somehow related to the tale of the Labyrinth, The Architects was nearly a total failure. There were some throwaways: in the maze we had to navigate to find our way to the central ballroom where 90% of the evening took place; a nod to Pasiphae’s impregnation in the hollow cow statue (and the reference to having dolphin sex on demand in such a statue) that stood in the ballroom (of a cruise ship, apparently) where we waited interminably for something to happen; a cow-headed creature was killed at the end; and I do believe the family portraits hung throughout the maze had a certain bovine somebody scratched out.

But seriously: who came up with this crap? I was bored ten minutes after our “cruise” started (note: the “show” starts 1:10 after doors open, and there’s nothing to do or entertain yourself with other than the bar, so no point coming early – there is no extra atmosphere to absorb elsewhere). What was the purpose of any of the announcements that took place while we sat at our tables and occasionally listened to a band play? There was a bit of a narrative going on about problems on the cruise but it just lacked focus. At the end (spoiler alert), we are split into groups by gender, sat in the dark where we watch a TV screen that tells us to “scream!” and beware the minotaur; then the curtains are drawn to reveal a large open space where 1) the people running the cruise try to help a rope artist get back onto the boat (something like 5-10 minutes of rope artistry here so not enough to rescue the evening) 2) the people on the band murder the missing member of Minos’s family. Then a further curtain opens and there are the actors again, mostly (or entirely) naked.

And that was it. The band returned to the ballroom. A red string helped us find our way out of the venue. What a waste of time and effort!

(This review is for a performance that took place at 5 PM on Sunday, December 9th, 2012. It lasted for just over an hour. Tickets can be had for 10 quid on Theatermonkey.com, which might be tolerable. No, wait, it’s not. Dress warm. It runs through February 2nd. Moo.)