Archive for January, 2013

Mini-review – Port – National Theater

January 30, 2013

I did not plan on going to see Port at the National Theater. The tag line, “two kids, largely abandoned and growing up in the deprived suburban shadows of Manchester,” made me think it was likely to be cutesy or preachy or maudlin and, even worse, feature child actors. However, when I got an invitation to go to press night for free, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to resist. Free theater! Starting at 7 PM! Hurray!

Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed this play at all, though the impressions I got from the info on the National’s web site was pretty much entirely incorrect. I really thought it was going to be about an eleven and a six year old kid running wild, living under bridges and dumpster diving while they tried to keep together; instead, it was about some weird little kids growing up into profoundly fucked up adults in an environment where they could have learned some humanity at some point along the way but seemed to have nearly entirely failed. I’ve rarely seen a bleaker portrait of a sub-middle class existence; and although this would seem to be the same income level of the people that I grew up with in America (i.e. “trailer trash,” bottom of the barrel poor), for some reason either as life is lived in Stockport or as playwright Simon Stephens chose to portray his characters, I found myself utterly unsympathetic to these two near-animals. Kate O’Flynn was completely believable as Rachael Keats, but after watching her attack her grandmother in a nursing home garden I no longer was rooting for her (and had lost my taste for chocolate). There may have been a bigger political message that I, as a foreigner, was indifferent to: but as a play watcher, I got neither much of a plot nor really any other reason to be sitting in the dark while these horrors played out in front of me. I grew up in worse circumstances than this and not only clawed my way out, but kept my ties to my family and friends. These people, Rachael and her brother Billy (Mike Noble), I wanted nothing more than to get away from them and get out of the room and let them carry on with their misery far, far from me.

Was this play realistic? Probably. Was the acting good? Yes. Was it worth watching? I think not. As I dashed into the comfort of sleeting rain, I wondered why in the hell wasn’t The River done here and Port done at The Royal Court? Does the National just have really poor standards for script acceptance? Does the Royal Court have much better connections with people who know how to make good plays? The whole thing is a mystery to me, but there’s no doubt in my mine that Port was a waste of money and effort.

(This review is for opening night, which was Monday, January 29th, 2013. It continues through March 24th.)

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Review – Merrily We Roll Along – Menier Chocolate Factory

January 28, 2013

It’s hard to figure out what to review when I’m writing up a show – the individual components (acting, set design, et cetera), or the impact of the prduction on me. I tend to stick to the second, but my experience is greatly influenced by whether or not I’ve seen the show before. I like to have shows be surprising for me, and part of the surpise is how the story unfolds. So this review, of a musical I’ve never seen before (Merrily We Roll Along), is going to be just as much a review of what was put on paper as it was how the actors, director, musicians, and so forth came together to make it all happen. And I realize this review is a bit late – the show opened in November – but shows at the Menier Chocolate Factory tend to be at the top end of my budget, and I decided to hold off going until the reviews came in. Once they did, though, it was a scramble to get tickets at any price, and I’ll warn you in advance if you want to see it that your best chance is to just check the website a few times a day to see if returns come in, because it is now VERY sold out (though talking of a transfer).

So! There’s a musical on at the Menier, by a composer I frequently have found irritating because of the tuneless nature of his show tunes. However, as I’ve been getting older, I’ve been finding myself enjoying his stuff more, because of the complicated textures of his … this is embarrassing … lyrics. OKAY! I’VE ADMITTED IT! Yes, I got to musicals and listen to THE WORDS. This is why I think Cole Porter is the best musicals writer ever, because his lyrics are so intelligent (and the music so singable). And, well, in an age in which lyrics seem to be getting stupider by the decade, tuning into a Sondheim musical at least proves intellectually satisfying. So when I heard that Merrily We Roll Along was not just supposed to be a good production, but had a story that I could get into (it’s about writing musicals, not very original but still the kind of thing I like on stage), I done went and ponied up and hoped against hope that maybe this time I’d walk out the door whistling a tune.

Okay, that last sentence was pretty much a lie. What I wanted was a show that pulled me into the story and made my brain fizz when people were singing, and even if it wasn’t the buzz I get from Irving Berlin, I thought this show would deliver. And so it did: starting with a scene of seventies success and excess, in a Malibu mansion, where producer Franklin Shepard (Mark Umbers) is having a big party to celebrate how awesome he is. He keeps feeling up a young starlet who’s there; before the evening is over, his wife and a mysterious fat broad from New York (Mary Flynn, Jenna Russell) have both told him off and walked out. What is this all about? Why are they so angry? Why was the New Yorker there at all? And there was a … songwriting partner?

From this point, the show starts rolling backwards, connected by a series of lovely announced date changes, telling the story of how Shepard got to where he was at the beginning of the play, how he made friends and lost them, how he had a family, how he had dreams, how he evolved from a man in love with music and the stars in the night sky to a man in love with fame, attention, and money. And because it’s told going backwards, because you know who his second wife at the start, you know there is a first: and when first wife (the lovely Clare Foster) is there congratulating Shepard and Gussie (Josefina Gabrielle) at the opening of Shepard’s first big success, your heart breaks that she won’t listen to Mary Flynn’s warning to keep an eye on her. In some ways, it’s wonderful to finally see when Shepard is friends with Charlie Kringas (Damian Humbley), in part because of the way it opens up opportunities for great duets and trios, but the hope and joy the characters show on stage can never be felt by the audience.

Let me be clear – there are a lot of really fun scenes and songs in this show – my favorites being the “composition” song (complete with the sound of typewriters, sung) and the Andy Warhol/Factory-esque dance party in black and white – but what really stuck was the feeling of infinite melancholy brought on by knowing where each scene, told going forward, would end up in the future. Thus a song like “Not a Day Goes By” hits you in the teeth on its reprise, because it’s not a song about how you can’t forget someone you hate … it’s about how your life is inevitably marked my someone you love. And then it changes. My God, what a show. I can see how I wouldn’t have enjoyed Sondheim so much in my twenties; shows like this, like Strindberg, really require a person to have had a lot more suffering and loss in their lives before they can really resonate. It was, really and truly, a great show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 19th, 2013. It continues through March 9th and may have a West End transfer – God knows the talent was blasting off the stage like they were powered with rocket fuel. Unmissable in the Menier, I tell you.)

Mini-review – Rocky Horror Show – New Wimbledon Theater (UK Tour – also Liverpool Empire, Edinburgh Playhouse, Leeds Grand and more)

January 23, 2013

While I’ve gone many times to see a movie version of a musical, I’ve rarely gone and seen the live version of a movie. This is not, of course, the order of genesis of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Rocky Horror Show … but back when I was going to see the midnight movies in Phoenix, Arizona in 1983, I had no idea that this clunky, disjointed film had anything to do with a stage musical – it was just a fun, late night party with all of my freaky friends. Dress up, sing along, throw toast … in a land without pantos, this was as much fun as you could have in a theater (especially if you were under the drinking age, not that people didn’t sneak booze in). I was never so advanced as to make it to the group of people who stood in front of the screen performing along with the show, but that required more dedication than I had, plus your own car.

Ah well. Fast forward (well, slow forward) thirty years to 2013 … and the Rocky Horror Show was coming to Wimbledon (well, it’s still there as of the time I am writing this). I couldn’t be convinced to go see the movie again, but I’d come to wonder: what was it like as a musical? How did it fit together? Were there songs I hadn’t heard, as happened with Chicago? Did the extraordinarily bad dialogue of the movie have its origins in the play or was it just the most god awful adaptation ever? Were there cut scenes? What might the dance bits look like with actual talent performing them (not that Little Nell wasn’t amazing in the movie, but on stage she must have been a sight!)?

However, what I NEVER thought to question was that this was going to be a STAGE SHOW and NOT a recreation of the movie going experience! So there I wound up, underdressed (with neither fishnets nor a feather boa to lighten up my winter attire), surrounded by WILD AND CRAZY YOUNGSTERS who were in gold top hats, corsets, the occasional “good girl” sweater set, and many clutching sacks full of props. I had a real laugh early on with the five kids in front of me all pulled out their newspapers to cover their heads during the rain scene. And the talking back to the performers! My God, the atmosphere it created was QUITE different with a real live actor there who was able to either pretend to ignore you OR talk back, either using it as a chance to mock you (“That’s my mother”) or to just go on a comedic riff (“Yes, down like my career … sad that it’s all come to this”). I was amazed at the tension it created, and actually a bit bothered that it was happening at all … I actually wanted to see the show as it was written, not as it evolved. But this was not to be, and clearly the Narrator (Philip Franks, who had the worst of it) had had a chance to warm up to it, as he appeared to not be thrown off stride at any point by the heckling and had even worked up some clever barbs to toss back out into the audience.

As it turns out, while the Rocky Horror Show is quirky (kind of a cross between Little Shop of Horrors and Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens), it did actually work pretty well as a stage show. The whole thing comes off much more clearly (than the movie did for me) as an homage to the bad science fiction movies of the 50s, with a bit of a 70s, post-women’s/gay/sexual liberation twist. Maybe I should have been insulted that a transvestite was set up to be a villain … or that, at the end, everyone has to show that they’re liberated because they’re willing to let themselves cross dress. Were minds really so little when this show was written? But it was really fun, not in the least because, well, phoar, Frank N Furter (Oliver Thornton) was just as yummy as the character in the movie – and possibly a little bit more naughty and decidedly better muscled. Meanwhile, without the horrible camera angles making everything swoopy and dizzy, I was able to focus on what I wanted to … so Frank chasing Rocky (Rhydian) around the lab was really very comic, Eddie (Joel Montague)’s big number could be really appreciated as a 50s number, and giant green lasers shooting around the auditorium made the whole thing very energizingly rock and roll. Plus Janet (Roxanne Pallett) had some pipes. “Sing it!”

If you want to be picky, you might point out that the stage dressings were very thin (what, two set versions, fleshed out with a cardboard car, a castle/church, and some mylar curtains?) and that the “big ensemble” feeling wasn’t really happening with only four supernumeraries. But hey, when it was time to do the Time Warp, did not the whole audience (in the half of the auditorium where people were sitting when I went) jump to our feet? Yes we did, and a good time was had by all. It wasn’t meant to be deep and it was very, very entertaining, and sexier than I expected – in short, a good cure for the January blues, ideally priced at £10, and perfect with four shots of vodka mixed with J2O.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013. It continues at the New Wimbledon theater through January 26th, then tours through October 2013.)

Mini-review – Fuerzabruta – Roundhouse

January 20, 2013

Well, it’s the new year, and time for me to try a few new things, in this case letting a friend pick out a show for me. The show in point was Fuerzabruta at the Roundhouse, and I hadn’t managed to find out much about it beforehand other than it was physical theater and fairly short. The short thing was very important for me these days because my health has been very poor and my energy levels are struggling; however, I didn’t realize that actually I would have to spend all of the 70 or so minutes of the show standing. I was also quite surprised at the ticket price, nearly forty quid with no discounts to be found anywhere – in fact, the opposite, as the show was substantially sold out and I nearly missed out on going! All I basically knew was that it was a group from Argentina (this may or may not be true) that was here a few years ago and had sold out most of their shows then, so my friend was very determined to go, and I figured, hey, how often to people invite me out, and while the price was really too high, I was willing to go along knowing I wouldn’t be there for too long.

Aaaand … now I’m looking at the pull quotes on the website and wondering, did I even see the same show? While Fuerzabruta did succeed in creating spectacle, it did it in a world entirely populated by white people who had no desire to retain their hearing into their old age and little concept of photosensitivity. I’m fortunately not one to pass out due to an excess of flashy lights, but I’m also very aware when they’re being used and also that one of their purposes is to “wow” the audience (ditto with bright lights pointed at the audience). Similarly, very loud noise (i.e. the drumming that opened the show) and movement control (being told to go to other places to stand so things could happen as bits of stage moved in and out) is also very emotive … but it’s not stuff that gets to me anymore.

So that leaves us with the “content” of Fuerzabruta. Was it about the horrible soul killing nature of modern office work (very relevant to a London crowd, I’d imagine), about people’s desire to reach out to one another and make a real connection, or really anything at all? I can’t help but think it was not. So while it made a big shiny impact what with people running around sideways on shiny mylar walls while green and purple lights reflected off of them, or when a guy jumped through a wall of cardboard bricks, or when (ooh) the sexy girls in the pool floating overhead came down and looked and waved at us and we could feel the warmth of their hands through the plastic tanks if we just reached overhead … it was in the service of nothing. I found it sad that I was watching the very kinds of dance techniques pioneered by Trisha Brown (and lovingly recreated in the Barbican’s Pioneers of the Downtown Scene New York 1970s art exhibit) were now being used to create something I wouldn’t classify in any way as art, but just fluffy, noisy entertainment. It was just so damned empty. And when the evening was almost over, we were covered in a giant plastic bubble with the performers on the outside (occasionally popping through holes to greet us), and I thought, yeah, what a metaphor: a big bunch of hot air that all of us inside have created for the benefit of the performers and their production company at forty quid a pop. I guess they’re doing something right as the house was packed, but for the money I’ve rarely spent a more vapid evening.

(This review is for the 7 PM performance that took place on Friday, January 18, 2013. It continues through January 27th. Don’t be too bothered that it says sold out on each show on the Roundhouse website: I clicked the “sold out” link on the day I wanted to go and got a ticket. That said … seriously, there are a MILLION better ways to spend that much money.)

Mini-review – Fair Em – Claire Evans at the Union Theater

January 14, 2013

In a year in which conservatism has taken over theatrical production, it seems reasonable that even the fringe would want to go but the tried but true – in this case, the “big name” (Shakespeare) with a hint of controversy (but is it by him or is it not?). This time, however, Phil Wilmott has gone not for a “possibly by Shakespeare” show (well, actually King John seems to be fairly secure in its authorship, it’s just not produced much), but a “well it was once in a pile of plays labeled “Shakespeare” so let’s see if this pulls in the punters” title. “Fair Em” ISN’T thought to be by Shakespeare by ANYONE. It is, however, quite reasonable to describe it as a show having its ” modern world premiere” in 2013. And why would this be? I will attempt to clarify in as simple a way as possible – by summarizing the plot.

So, there’s a really pretty girl, named Em (Caroline Haines). She is of noble birth but she and her father are pretending to be millers because of the political changes caused by the invasion of William the Conqueror (Jack Taylor). Being noble, and thus beautiful, Em has attracted suitors above her station – three, in fact. But wait, let’s not forget William the Conqueror. He is also in love – with a woman whose face he saw on someone’s shield. It’s Blanch (Madeline Gould in a comically horned headpiece), daughter of the king of Denmark! He goes there in disguise to woo her, but then falls in love with Mariana (Alys Metcalf), who has promised to wed another. Meanwhile, Em is struggling to deal with her suitors’ competition with each other, and in order to prove herself faithful to her first love, pretends to be deaf and blind to scare off the others, with the comic result that …

Are you lost yet? I promise you will be, even despite the costumes that attempt to keep you cleverly focused on PEOPLE IN DENMARK and POOR YET NOBLE MAKE BELIEVE DEAF GIRL wait DEAF AND BLIND GIRL wait BLIND GIRL wait … and then there’s some sort of a battle and … oh God, it was really all too much. As a bit of Elizabethan theater, Fair Em was like the Dumb and Dumber of its age – no doubt enjoyable at the time but my God, it just did not age well. Or maybe I just go to too much highbrow stuff – I mean, I wound up here because the Shaw triple bill at the Red Lion was sold out. But, you know, um … nice backdrop, and I do think the actors were really giving it their all. Perhaps we might dub this “cringe theater?”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 12, 2013. Fair Em continues through February 9th at the Union Theater.)

Review – Get Aladdin – Above the Stag at the Landor Theater

January 8, 2013

Well, darlings, we are simply at the DREGS of panto season, the very BOTTOM of the barrel, and if you’re scraping it looking for a few last sad laughs I can’t express what a SURPRISE you’re going to have if you manage to get one of the few remaining tickets for Get Aladdin at the Landor Theater, which was sold out SO FAR AHEAD way back in November, darlings, that I couldn’t find a single pair of tickets until all the way in January. Apparently people LOVE the Above the Stag pantos, and God knows I’d been trying to get into one for YEARS, but I’m really not that fabulous, you see, just some hack hag with a blog and theater fetish, and I was NOT their scene.

But there I was the Sunday after New Year’s anyway, keeping company with a VERY manly crowd that couldn’t help but remind me of my glory days back when I was 16 and used to spend the night boogieing away to Yaz and “It’s Raining Men” down at HotBods and Farrah’s in Phoenix, Arizona (yes, we’ve come a long way, baby). But it seemed VERY promising and I had a LOVELY companion with me with whom I was sure I could laugh uproariously at the most inappropriate things (yes, macing your ladybits when you thought you were using FDS was actually pretty funny in my book) and it seemed to me that we were going to have a GOOD evening.

Well, things initially seemed a bit ropey, what with the tawdry stage dressings and our single villain (Abanazar) looking like a milksop if ever there was one – he had the face of a young Rowan Atkinson and was parading around in a cheap pinstriped suit! Boo, hiss, BORING darling. And then the policewoman with her pre-PC Chinese accent – what century was this, anyway?

But then (at about the time the curtains were pulled away), things really started to come together. I mean, Abanazar was a bit comic as a bit of East End rough, but actually, a Chinese factory owner was perfectly situated to be a villain in today’s world; and our PC turned out to be an English lady pretending to be Chinese, thus doing it badly and making it a forgivable character trait rather than an incredibly inappropriate and racist directorial choice.

And oh, the gay! The lovely gay! Not only did we have a very sexy Aladdin, but his true love was the prince of the province of How Hung, whom the villain was also trying to seduce! And Widow Twankey was not JUST a dame but well and truly a Queen of the Drag, who perhaps didn’t have the kind of costumes she might have got with a bigger budget but had 10 times the personality of any of the dames I saw on stage this year. And so much witty banter! And SO much teasing of the audience!

Boys and girls, are we clear, this was a fabulous night out and top notch panto, unbeatable for raucous laughter, terrible puns, smutty innuendo, and … a finale with a hard hitting attack on modern day politics (let’s say it happens in London and ISN’T about female bishops) that was delivered in a 100% comic way that I found represented the best of British humor … laughing as we cry. Blow the bubbles, my cupcakes, and catch the sweeties (perhaps in your laps – ooh, I mean the genie of the lamp), and make sure that before January 13th you remember to Get Aladdin.

(To be clear I had just a wee bit to drink before I wrote this review and the spirit of the evening kind of took me away. Show seen 6 PM Sunday January 6th; it continues through January 13th.)

Review – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – New Wimbledon Theater

January 6, 2013

Since my initial exposure to the great British tradition known as “Panto,” I’ve been trying to see a new show every year. Sure, you all know that Aladdin features the Widow Twankey and Cinderella has Buttons, but if you grew up reading plain old fairy tales like me, you would have never learned about these things. This year I managed to see two new (to me) shows: Robin Hood (in Greenwich) and Snow White at the New Wimbledon. Now, I was a bit attracted by the idea of seeing Priscilla Presley; but mostly what I wanted to see was a panto I hadn’t seen before.

And WOW! Panto tradition that I had missed? The seven dwarves were ACTUALLY persons of reduced height, midgets and dwarves (if I understand the nomenclature correctly). I had never seen that many of them at the same time and was actually blown away. As a bonus, the seven of them were REALLY talented, as actors, comics, and with physical humor, and I couldn’t believe what a shedload of British specialty actors I was having the privilege to see on stage at the same time (star: Warwick Davis as “the Prof”). All of the best moments were when they were on stage: my very favorite was when they rescued Snow White and took her to their cottage in their woods, then sang a “House of Fun”/”Our House” medley while GIANT SQUIRRELS AND DEER AND BUNNIES DANCED AROUND THE STAGE. I mean, GIANT BUNNIES AND MADNESS that was my ticket covered RIGHT THERE. They had a show stealing end thing that I’d mention (as it was my second favorite point in the night), but I’d like to keep it a secret so you can enjoy it on your own.

The sad thing, though, is what a flabby and lifeless evening it was otherwise. Not only could Mrs Presley not act, she could barely remember her lines (making her exit comment about it rather ironic) and was outacted by each and every one of the dwarves, including the one who didn’t talk (but did a great Susan Boyle interpretation). And the two sidekicks, the henchman and the jester, just weren’t funny. The audience responded by being flat and unresponsive; they didn’t take the clue and speed up their timing or cut the unfunny stuff, and we could have about been watching a movie for as much as we were interacted with. LAAAAME.

But, you know, it was only 15 quid: and I saw 7 little people jigging with people in funny animal costumes to some of the favorite songs of my youth; so I got my money’s worth and it was all over at 9:30 so I got a good night’s sleep to boot. Worth what I paid but generally flabby.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013 and was my FIRST OFFICIAL SHOW of the year. Oh well.)