Archive for December, 2012

Mini-review – Robin Hood – Greenwich Theater

December 8, 2012

It seems churlish to complain that I’ve just been seeing too many shows lately, but, well, I’m backlogged three reviews from the nine plays I’ve seen in the last seven days and I don’t know how I’m going to catch up. So I’m writing about what I enjoyed most first, and in this case, I want to tell the world that Robin Hood at the Greenwich Theater is a damned fun show and absolutely worth heading out into parts somewhat less known in order to see it (it’s only ten minutes walk from the rail station and really not that hard to find).

The story really isn’t much – Robin Hood is tweaking the nose of the Sheriff of Nottingham (which was very much reminding me of George Osborne, only slim and sexy with some really killer boots) by stealing money from him that the Sheriff is stealing from the poor (of course in real life the “sheriff” forgets to steal from the rich, i.e. Starbucks and Vodafone – really, the parallels with modern politics were so obvious!). Meanwhile, the Sheriff has got his hands on Maid Marion, Robin Hood’s childhood sweetheart, and has decided he’s going to marry her to get his hands on her wealth. So far so good – but the supporting characters are SUCH a hoot, starting with the “Camp Minstrel” (in a blue kilt and tam o’ shanter), Friar Tuck (the cook – lots of “fryer” jokes going on), and the Sheriff’s evil henchwoman (Caroline Koutsoudes), who for some reason was a Spanish witch (go figure). My favorite amongst ALL the characters was not, however, the Naughty Nursey dame (Andrew Pollard, who as he wrote this thing as well as starring in it is a genius in my book), but Arabella Roderigo as Marion, who whips off her damsel rags and tosses distress out the window to reveal herself as a warrior princes! She shoots a bow, she defeats evil, she belts out a ballad and makes it all look fun. What a talent! After complaining about how damned saccharine all of the female leads seemed to be, finally one that makes me want to cheer. Hooray for Caroline!

Er, I mean, “Robin Hood,” at least per the audience call back. As for the REST of the show, it was a good time from start to finish, with lots of bad puns, slightly risque jokes (pulling on my dingaling, MY) that I think were entirely understood by the audience of eight year olds, a slapstick number involving Tuck and Nursie “curing” the bum-hanging-out Sheriff, a running joke about the Minstrel’s unsung song, and piles and piles of songs that ranged from disco to modern. Bonus: when THIS show did “Gangnam Style,” the ENTIRE AUDIENCE leapt to their feet and danced along! My God! Such enthusiasm! That said, it was SO well placed and so well deserved, because this was a fun, fun show that had me clapping and giggling and booing and shouting at the stage all the way through. Greenwich Theater’s Robin Hood is an utter success, and I know I’ll be back to see it again next year.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Thursday, December 6th, 2012. It continues through Sunday, January 6th. Nice job, Mr Pollard, you are my panto hero this year!)

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Mini-review – Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse

December 6, 2012

This has been the year for Shakespearean double vision. Not content to see Henry V, Winter’s Tale, and Julius Caesar once this year, I’ve been forced by outstanding casting, adventurous producing companies, or unusual interpretations (a musical?) to see them all twice. But none of these rewind shows has excited me as much as the all-female Caesar presented by the Donmar this winter. Though I love Propeller Theater and the Globe’s Twelfth Night pleased, I was mesmerized by the idea of women driving this most masculine of Shakespearean dramas. And what a counterbalance to all of the “traditional” all-male shows. Phyllida Lloyd, bring it!

In practice, the show delivered. The setting, a prison, prepared us with a sentiment of why the show was happening as performed; but quickly the novelty of women kissing and being brutal to each other disappeared into the solidity of the text, with only the occasional clumping of the guards overhead to remind us of where we really were: a place ruled by honor, violence, and power. Caesar convinced with both arrogance and superstition; Marc Antony was righteously wrong and a deliciously duplicitous self-claimed non-orator; Brutus was noble, heartbreaking and heart broken.

Small, apt touches punctuated the fiercesome tide of the text: the sad, weak seer, with her babydoll and pig tails; the inmates gathering to watch TV; the single snare drum pop with which Caesar, her ghost miraculously appearing amidst a percussion kit, marks the death of Brutus. And then towering above it all, the amazing battle scene as loud rock breaks out and the band is wheeled across the field (er, the floor of the prison), all pain and noise and flickering light and chaos, like War Pigs in the theater. It’s not glory, boys, it’s death and destruction, and it may just be we chose the wrong side.

And then it’s time to go back in our cells, and the night’s over, and I thought, “Fuck yeah, Shakespeare meets Black Sabbath,” and, “Why aren’t there some better plays out there about what life is really like in prison,” and, finally, “Yep, it rocked.” And I realized that I totally forgot who was playing what a long time ago. That, to me, is a sign of some damned good theater.

(This review is for the performance that took place the night of December 6th, 2012. It continues through February 9th.)

Mini-review – Privates on Parade – Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theater

December 5, 2012

This ill thought start to the Michael Grandage season left me so puzzled as to why it had been picked that I actually did a little research before I started writing this up (normally I go for a “straight from the gut” impression without even the benefit of reading the program – let a show stand on its own merits, I say). Was it actually written in an era where the degree of raw racism it showed was funny? I had just the night before seen Our Boys so the filthy mouths of servicemen (lots of talk about sex and their own genitals) was fresh in my mind. But the gap between these plays was … well, there was a joke one of these nights about Moses parting the Red Sea, and on one hand there was Egypt and the other the Promised Land.

And Michael Grandage was the one with the mummy jokes.

Right, so it SEEMED likely to be awesome, and there’s no doubt that Simon Russell Beale is astounding and on form as a very gay post-war entertainer, with lots of star turns in deluxe drag (loved his Marlene Dietrich!). I was ready for laughs and delighted at the nudity and surprised that so much of the show was dance numbers …

And then the interval came around and I couldn’t believe it had only been, what, 70 minutes. It felt like two hours! And it already felt like it was ready to be over!

The problem, I think, comes down to the script. I’m sure there’s a lot of jokes in there that maybe rang a little truer in 1977 when England was closer to the memory of empire, but all of the crap about stupid chinks/brown faced people/half castes or what have you just got on my tits. Yeah, sure, when Britain cleared out Singapore became a massive superpower (the point made at the end), but you know what? We’ve moved on, and I’m not even a “we” yet. That means we’re left with a story about an intelligent young man who sells out his ideals for a chance at power, and an older man who sells out the people under his command to make some point about empire. That leaves about two potential human beings in the whole cast, and to be honest, Silvia Morgan was a stereotype, too.

That left Mr. Beale all alone to carry the show. Magnificent though he was, it simply was not enough. Bah. I guess I’ll just consider this one my “freebie” as when you bought the entire season, it was discounted so that one of the tickets was essential free. What am I going to do with the second one I bought for closing night? AAARGH!

(This review is for a preview peroformance that took place on December 4th, 2012. It continues through March 2nd.)

Mini-review – Taboo – Brixton Club House

December 4, 2012

Laugh if you will, but I was a New Romantic slash Goth (a blurry line between them back in the day) during the early 80s, and for me, a play about Boy George and the London music scene of that era was like manna from heaven, made all that much more fun by being done IN A CLUB that totally had the right atmosphere going with songs like “Enola Gay” playing as we walked in to our stage-side seat. AH the early 80s, when I read about scandals in England through months-old copies of The Face and tried to figure how I should dress and dance by watching Adam and the Ants videos on MTV. Boy George was the person who embodied genderqueer, in a window when being bisexual (or gay) wasn’t seen as a one way ticket to AIDS. I knew there was a lot more going on here than I was able to keep track of from my home in the desert – Tower Records and New Music Express could only fill me in on so much – and, well, then I was off to university and dealing with the rest of life and, gosh, it’s 2012 and I never really got the story straight but wasn’t that Boy George being just amazing at the Royal Opera House at a ballet I saw a few months ago?

I was interested in “the real story,” though I have to admit a trip down memory lane also enticed me (and the opportunity to spend an evening surrounded by music I shamelessly enjoy). But I still came in with my musical theater critic’s armor firmly in place – I might enjoy myself for personal reasons, but I was dedicated, dear reader (both of you, including the one who came with me to this show) to reporting the truth with the rose colored glasses set to one side. Taboo would succeed or fail (for this review) based on its merits alone.

Aw, gosh, that’s the lie I told myself, anyway. The crazy clothes, makeup, and fun (background) music did make me feel all warm and happy. But the story was, I thought, very good, framed in “the outsider tells the tale of a group of artistes” trope familiar from Cabaret to Rock of Ages. A poor photographer with a Siouxsie lookalike girlfriend is documenting a blossoming club scene; will his work make him a success? Will any of them become a success …or (like Marilyn -the singer of this era-, I think, did) just become another Sally Bowles? And …critically for the era…how will his friends and family handle his newly fluid sexual identity?

Amongst the narrative arc of the play, two more historical tales arc: that of Boy George’s rise to (and fall from) fame, which mostly focuses on the early years and generally ignores the existence of his band and the people in it; and the story of Lee Bowery, whom, I’m ashamed to admit, I knew almost nothing of until the Lucien Freud retrospective earlier this year. His influence on the club culture is touched on, and, while I can’t speak as to its accuracy, I felt like the flavor of what I saw (beside Bowery’s painted portait) condensed into the phrase “burlesque performance” was captured nicely in the scenes in which he featured. Only someone who was actually there could know for sure, but it’s often the case with performance artists that their work is never recorded well anywhere other than in the memory. I thought it was very touching that Taboo, despite its expected focus, did so much to keep Bowery’s legacy alive.

Retrospectively, it was the music itself that did the least for this show: a series of forgettable tunes that did create character and move the narrative forward but which otherwise blew away like smoke from a clove cigarette. The focus on a personal history was a good organizational choice; and as a tale of one person’s growth, a slice of a certain period of time, and a memoriam to a great performer sadly brought down by AIDS, Taboo was a fine piece of theater and a good night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 30th, 2012. It continues through March 31st, 2013.)

Mini-review – Once Upon a Mattress – Union Theater (Southwark)

December 3, 2012

There is no moment so jolly as finding a killer deal on a show you wanted to see on the very night you happened to have a hole in your schedule. But there it was Sunday evening, a half price Twitter special for Once Upon a Mattress at the Union Theater, and off Jonathan and I went to catch a second show on what had suddenly become a tightly packed day.

I didn’t know anything more about Mattress than it was a silver age musical (per J) that is beloved of American high schools. Its fairy tale structure centers around a non-traditional heroine and a queen who wants to keep her son from ever cutting the apron strings, with a dose of out-of-marriage pregnancy to keep the plot from seeming too entirely old fashioned.

That said, this musical is rather stale, and without the benefit of brilliant songwriting to really lift it up. That left us with the acting, singing, and dancing to enjoy …which, as it turns out, I did. Much of this has to be credited to the outstanding performance of Jenny O’Leary as Princess Winnifred. She radiated charm, had the kind of voice you cheer to be able to enjoy unamplified, and single-handedly got me emotionally involved in the outcome of the show. Winnifred had to pass the princess test, she had to! There was also two lovely, completely unnecessary showoff moments in the “Very Soft Shoes” quasi-tap number (nice job, Daniel Bartlett) and a “Nightingale Lullaby” I was sure was originally written for Yma Sumac and performed with a similar degree of coloratura kabang by Danielle Morris.

These touches make me more forgiving of a soft book because at £20 a pop, it’s still a good deal and an enjoyable escape after a long day. The production is warm and Ms O’Leary worth seeing at the start of what I suspect will be a long and successful career in musical theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, December 2nd, at 7:30 PM. It continues through January 5th.)

Mini-review – The Magistrate – National Theatre

December 3, 2012

There are few badges of honor more likely to encourage me to see a play than the words, “Michael Billington hated it!” With this recommendation and the positive reviews I heard from my friends on Twitter, I was quite enthused about The Magistrate. I don’t like modern farce but for some reason when you put people in bustles and tall wigs, suddenly the whole thing really works for me – women pretending to be men (most of them), adults being fobbed off as children (this play), parents not recognizing their offspring when dressed in servant’s rags (London Assurance) – the works. It is an escapist theater treat, my feel-good night out (though occasionally it doesn’t work, witness She Stoops to Conquer), and as a friend of mine prepared to visit from America, we cackled with glee about the fun we were going to have.

Sadly, though, pricing for The Magistrate wasn’t very wallet friendly: since my friend was not going to be here until after previews, we were left with the option of £38 OR £47 tickets. That’s not just doable for either of us. We thus decided to roll the dice and go for day seats and BANG! fortune smiled upon us and we had two in hand for the very back row for £12 each. Given that we were able to “upgrade” ourselves to center seats in the £47 with no effort due to the large number of empty seats (entire rows, in fact), I think the National might want to consider softening up the pricing a bit, at least in the circle.

What makes me sad about all of the empty seats is that this show was a hoot & a holler, with over the top yet utterly sincere performances (I don’t know how else to describe it) that perfectly sold the numerous asides detailing the character’s ridiculous quandaries. The sets and costumes helped make the outrageousness more believable – the women were dressed in nearly fluorescent greens and pinks (NOT Victorian at all!); the backdrop and furniture looked like a pop-up book; and the chorus, in their black and white stripes, fractally curled wigs, and flat white face paint, looked like they might have stepped out of Mary Poppins. We were in a world of heightened reality, where odd things could happen, and where society’s normal rules were turned upside down – all in the name of comedy, of course.

The story itself is fluffy, with the key comedy being the personalities involved and the lies they’ve been telling each other (and perhaps themselves): the magistrate himself, Aeneas Posket (John Lithgow), believes himself to be a man who upholds all of society’s standards, especially in regards to morality, yet is so easily deceived he’s unable to realize when he’s engaging in vice; his wife, Agatha Posket (Nancy Carroll) is perfectly willing to bully her husband into living up to those standards while realizing she’s come quite short herself; between the two of them there is certainly a pile of affection but also a lot of mask wearing. The most honest of the group is Agatha’s son from her first marriage, Cis (Joshua McGuire), who believes himself to be a child and yet has all of a man’s interests, such as gambling, drinking, and women. He, at least, is honest about the lies he is telling to people, but believes himself exempt from following anything except his id given that he is “but a child of 14.”

Oh my. I don’t think I’ve captured it very well – the secret conversations while “the mater” is out of the room; the apartment that Cis keeps to have his friends stay in; an entire scene during which a character is hiding on a balcony getting rained on; the police; and poor, poor Mr Posket’s return to work after spending the night running through the streets of London. Who would think a red necktie and a two pence tip could be so funny? But they were, and, sick as I am and sick as I was when I saw the show, I laughed and laughed and revelled in the warmth of a joyous tale merrily told. I could ask for no better Christmas present from the National, and neither could you, whatever Michael “The Grinch” Billington might think.

(This review is for an afternoon performance that took place on Sunday, December 2nd, 2012. It runs through February 10th. I would consider it well priced at 25 quid.)

Review – Dick Whittington – Hackney Empire 2012 Panto

December 2, 2012

Since I’ve been in London (and after I discovered panto at the age of 40), Hackney Empire has been putting on my favorite show year after year. A lot of that is due to the talents of panto dame par excellence Clive Rowe, whose voice, personality, and chutzpah have had me giggling and guffawing. It’s clear that the writing and directing have had a lot to do with it, too, as the topical political jokes, clever satires of pop songs, and Hackney-centrism have also been a core part of my enjoyment – not to mention the family-friendly prices and the real feeling of community about the whole enterprise.

Well, a lot of these things were in place for this year’s “Dick Whittington” (the second time I’ve seen it there), but the magic was missing, and it wasn’t just because of Clive. There was a great, ultra-on moment as this year’s dame was parachuted onto the stage to be met by a James Bond lookalike, and several jokes about bankers, Boris, and the bad financial state the Empire is in, but where was the banter with the audience? Sure, we were asked to participate in no less than three callbacks, and of course we had a singalong (the “Cool Cat Chat” or something, it was recycled), but there was no audience member pulled on stage and almost no heckling of people in the front row.

More critically, where was the improv? Admittedly this performance was early days so people were probably settling in, and nothing seemed to go wrong at all, but it just seemed so canned (the jokes did, anyway) that I found myself let down. Yeah, there was rather a lot of innuendo with the cat running between the various female characters’ legs and then vibrating wildly (“Ooh, that tickles!” they exclaimed), but I would have preferred more wit. King Rat was sexy and a snazzy dancer when he finally got to cut loose, Mr Fitzwilliam showed fabulous potential to shine after a few more shows, and I loved the underwater scene, but that doesn’t change the fact that I took a nap during the first act and wasn’t bothered that I might have missed something. A servicable panto, to be sure, with this year’s obligatory “Gagnam Syle” parody, but not really worth the effort of trucking across London to see.

(This review is for the afternoon performance on December 1st, 2012.)

Mini-review – Twelfth Night (with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry) – Apollo Theater

December 1, 2012

As this show is a transfer from this fall’s production at the Globe, it seems a bit late to be getting in a review of Twelfth Night – it’s already transferred to the Apollo and opening night has come and gone. But I hadn’t seen it yet … well, okay, I saw a production of it a few years back, and to be honest I’m not much for this play. I don’t like seeing Malvolio abused and the central story is not really compelling. But, well, there was Mark Rylance to consider … he is truly an amazing actor. That said, I wasn’t willing to play groundling to see this show at the Globe, and the Apollo transfer is mostly sold out and unaffordable. But then a friend really wanted to go (he liked another actor in the production), and he didn’t care about the price, and so I went and wheedled the people at the box office for returns and suddenly there I was with a pair of tickets in “row O (extra legroom, amazing)” with ace views … and my friend was stuck at the airport due to a royal cock-up with Iberia and missing the show.

Now, really, I have written more than I have to say in the review. ARGH. It’s because I’ve been sick lately and my energy levels have been crap. I’ve managed to keep seeing shows but it’s basically like I’m propped up with a stick and I fall over afterwards. Bonus: I am fully open to being emotionally receptive to a show. Negative: writing is very, very hard.

The Twelfth Night seems to be the first Shakespeare I’ve ever seen that’s been fully, 100% period, bringing me back to the days when I was poring over my husband’s costume history books while he was in graduate school and I was learning about how sleeves could be tied on and slashed to show the wearer’s wealth. As a bonus to the delicious costuming, the whole thing was accompanied by proper period music. My god, what a treat! Sackbuts, archlutes, and shawms ahoy! And for fun, there were two little split-level buildings on the side of the stage where audience members were packed in eyeball to eyeball with the actors. What fun! If those are the day seats, I’ll warn that the view will be very odd and you will miss some stuff, but the opportunity to have Viola launch herself at you or hold Sir Toby Belch’s bottle of booze is not to be sniffed at.

Despite the high attention to period detail, this felt like a stripped down production, with sets mostly consisting of a table and benches with one rotating shrubbery. The focus is meant to be the play, and it felt a bit like the all-male cast was meant to further keep your attention on the words and less on the stage dressing. However, having a man in the role of Viola (Johnny Flynn, ever so yummy) made the complexity of a character that is a woman pretending to be a man … while _played_ by a man … just a tiny bit more brain bending than it would have been otherwise. One of the very best scenes in this production is where Orsino encourages Viola-disguised-as-Cesario to sympathetically mope about love unrequited … while Viola all but pants with desire. In this case, Orsino (Liam Brennan) most intriguedly checks Viola out, as if to say, “Is there something here I’m not getting?” And we’re of course wanting to shout, “For God’s sake, she’s really a girl! Only … it’s a guy! But she’s still really hot!” And the whole thing about collapsed into Victor/Victoria all over again.

Meanwhile, Rylance was, er, fine as Olivia, moving around like he was wearing rollerskates, absolutely as buried in the role as he was in Rooster, with not a bit of Rylance visible, really, through the black gown and veil. But oddly, amongst these many fine actors, it was Olivia’s maid Maria (Paul Chahidi) I loved the most, charming and hammy and giggle-making. Chahidi was no longer a man in a dress but just a funny, funny actor with a role that let him/her fill the stage with personality. It just was not what I expected, that this lesser character in the side plot would be the one that had me sitting in my (very comfy) seat and just basking in her glow: but so it was. Overall: a well-executed production, but not an unmissable one, though this will be the Maria by which I shall judge all others. And Flynn: well, if I figure out what bar the cast hangs out at after the show, as soon as I’ve shaken off this damned illness I’ll be having a pint there regularly, say around 11 PM.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 27th, 2012. It continues through February 9th, 2013.)