Archive for February, 2013

Review – How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found – New Venture Theater, Brighton

February 26, 2013

Brighton is pretty damned far out of the way for a Londoner like myself to visit to see a show, and normally if I’m going there it’s for a day of sun and ocean air. None of that was on offer on Sunday, though, when I forced myself through freezing temperatures (and little bits of fluffy snow) to hit a 2:30 matinee at the New Venture Theater (absolutely walkable from the station but also directly served by the #6 bus from the station). I didn’t know a thing about the play “How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found” and had really pried myself out mostly to see a friend involved with the show. But …

The show starts out seeming like some kind of reactionary, overhysterical response to the pressures of modern life. You lose your cell phone, you work too long hours, the commute gets you down. Some people commit suicide. And our lead character, Charlie (Scott Roberts), seems a case in point: pushed positively to the brink and apparently on his way down. Is his fainting episode on the tube the start of him trying to get his life to a better state? Or has he entered some kind of strange, parallel world a la Being John Malkovich? And if he’s stealing things from people that are trying to help him, is he actually not a very nice guy? What kind of life has he been leading, anyway?

As things settled down, it became clear that this wasn’t entirely a world in which the rules had gone all Alice in Wonderland, but Charlie seemed to be losing it, and the experience of time and memory was becoming pretty fluid. I finally became convinced that what I was seeing really was a crackup, but not one that was going to be pushed into a zone of false-feeling comedy (despite the warped humor that bled into many scene) or utterly unbelievable “and now we discover it’s all a dream.” It had the horrible, chest-squeezing pressure of too many bad promises, bad decisions, and bad debts all coming due at the same time. Eventually the chaos of the many subordinate characters began to clarify, and about two of them bubbled to the front: a forensic pathologist (Emmie Spencer) and a small-time criminal with a specialty in identity theft (Sam Parsons). Who was telling the truth of Charlie’s future? How was this all going to end? Was there a way for him to really drop out and start over?

As a sort-of modernized Death of a Salesman (as script-doctored by David Mamet), How to Disappear did a great job of looking at the many strange complexities of modern life – companies that want to pretend to be your friends; governments that don’t notice if you’re dead; the strange interweavings of paperwork, relationships, and technology – and manages to build a psychological thriller that had me utterly unsure until the last minute where it was all going to go. And it was really, really grounded in reality, despite the non-linear structure. All performed against the simplest of set dressings (a wall, a bed, a table/desk/examining table), the characters breathed and bickered and flailed and displayed the sort of casual indifference for other people’s lives that I feel in many way is the stain on London’s heart. You are here and suffering, but no one really cares. All that we care is that you remember to pay your bills and don’t do anything stupid to slow down our commutes to work. And if this is life, really, then who wouldn’t want to just decide, now and then, to take the option and just disappear forever?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, February 24th, 2012. It continues through Saturday, March 2nd, and may have an extension of one day if there is enough demand. It delivered stunning value for £9.)


Mini-review – Playing Cards 1: Spades – Robert LePage at the Roundhouse

February 22, 2013

I have got a problem. I keep getting Robert LePage and Robert Wilson confused with each other. Embarrassingly, I also get Robert Anton Wilson and sometimes Robert Plant muddled together with them into into one giant Robert, writer of the Illuminati trilogy, groundbreaking set designer, famous director, and inspiration for two generation of metalheads.

Unfortunately, I think there’s really only one of them that I really like, and that’s the author. I went to see Playing Cards: Spades at the Roundhouse because I thought I was going to see something by Robert Wilson (since I admired the set work for Einstein on the Beach even if I thought it was slow and dull); instead, it was by the irritating French director who’s really well known but who I’ve found rather unforgivably self indulgent. Playing Cards: Spades represented what I saw as a nadir of his work (not that I have enough to judge it by): an overly long night of technical perfection (including flawless performances) utterly lacking in motive force and emotive power. It was exactly the kind of evening I avoid in either theatrical or cinematic form: too many stories supposedly linked together by the fact that the characters will, at some point, cross each other’s paths (easy enough in a Las Vegas hotel), sassed up with a little sex, a lot of violence, a couple of buckets of humiliation, and a bonus visit from the devil a la Don Giovanni. Yeah, at the end there was a really awesome smoke tornado – the first time I’d ever seen such a thing – but after having been in the theater for two hours and twenty-five minutes, I was beyond caring.

Bonus: front row seats were £15, only 10% of the view was blocked, and you can get up and go pee whenever you want. Negative: two and a half hours of my life are worth more than £15, but you may feel differently.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 21st, 2013. It continues through March 2nd.)

Mini-review – One Touch of Venus – Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theater

February 21, 2013

Is your idea of a FABULOUS Valentine’s day going to a pub and watching a bunch of semi-professional actors do a musical so unpopular that there’s not even a cast recording available these days? Well, it’s mine, especially when it’s a musical with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Ogden Nash. Getting to break in a new fringe theater venue was just a plus; so much the better that it came with several awards from CAMRA and a liberal policy about bringing in your own food on nights when the kitchen was not open. So One Touch of Venus at the Rose and Crown it was for me and my sweetheart, with full tummies, nice drinks, and bonus chocolates for the interval.

As it turns out, the show really delivered what I was hoping for in terms of great songs with witty lyrics, all glued together with a fairly lightweight yet fun (and surreal) plot that was better than many musicals of the time (but sounded like it was straight out of the mouth of Man In Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone): a silly art dealer (James Wolstenholme) gets an ancient statue of Venus delivered to his gallery, and while he’s fussing about, a visiting barber (David Jay Douglas) slips a ring on the statue’s finger, and it (now Kendra McMillan) comes to life – and falls in love with the barber! Shenanigans ensue, including dealing with the barber’s shrewish fiancee and her even more unlikeable mother, with a subplot of “where has the statue gone” that gets rather gangstery.

The songs really made this show for me (even if I thought one or two should have been cut to keep the running time down) – I laughed at the bitter meanness of “Way Out West in Jersey” (I can’t see how a British audience would have got the jokes) and the art scene mockery of “The New Art is the True Art,” but Nash outdid himself with “The Trouble with Women” (“is men,” now how perfect is THAT for Valentine’s day!). And then, well, “Speak Low,” my God, Weill and Nash, as sung by McMillan, was pure genius. I was … in a dream, I suppose, I’d lost all concept of watching a highly improbable show and was just wallowing in musical pleasure (thinking it might be nice to see her do a cabaret evening on her own).

The show did a good job of being inventively staged with its small budget. I loved the Punch and Judy show done for the “Dr. Crippen” ballad (making me think of the “Sweet Violets” ballet), and they handled Venus’s magic powers (making people disappear, bending prison cell bars) with aplomb and inventiveness (nice job Sarah June Mills). And yet … it was all just a bit long and I ran out of steam before they ran out of show. Sometimes in their duets, Venus and Rodney (the barber)’s voices were just not blending well, and some of the dance numbers seemed … skippable. But overall, it was a good evening and a fun Valentine’s day and a show I’d happily see again if it were remounted.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 14th, 2013. It runs through February 23rd.)

Mini-review – Trelawney of the Wells – Donmar Theater

February 20, 2013

Ah! The promise of the Donmar’s production of Trelawney of the Wells! A late Victorian comedy, by the well-known Arthur Wing Pinero (whose The Magistrate had me rolling in the aisles), that was billed as a love letter to theater!

It’s hard to express, in as many words as would get the feeling across, how unbearably dull this entire evening was. Too much of actors hamming it up (actors playing actors, my God, I could be forever put off the idea after this and Kiss Me Kate), too much of actors rehearsing a play, too much obvious plot twists, and not nearly enough funny. I was unenthusiastic in the opening scene in the back stage of the Wells theater, for Trelawney’s going-away dinner; I had a few laughs during the scene in which she attempted to enter normal society (“Stop your crying! Save your tears for the bedroom! This is WHIST!”), but come the interval I was wondering how I was going to get through to the end of the show (and finding the answer at the bar). Trelawney’s second act conversion from successful comedienne to starving artiste didn’t touch me at all; and I felt disassociated from the entire show and impatient for it to end.

And it did. As a comedy, it had a happy ending. As an audience member, I had the thrill of getting out the door at 10, which wasn’t quite as good as the thrill of not having bought tickets to this would have been, but so it goes.

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 19th, 2013. The show is booking through April 13th.)

Review – Chess (the Musical) – Union Theatre

February 19, 2013

Chess is a musical with nearly legendary status given its famous parentage (Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba for music and Tim Rice for lyrics) and child (“One Night in Bangkok”). How was it this seemingly blessed show could produce a top forty hit but be a Broadway flop? It was a bit of a mystery. Some people said it was because the topic, of cold war battles fought through the medium of US/Soviet chess games, which just didn’t hold up after the Soviet Union fell; but with some thirty years distance between the original production and now, it seemed like an ideal time to explore the ugly reality: was it just a bad show with uninteresting music? Or was it a work of genius sadly unappreciated in its time? I’d enjoyed the little taster provided at a Blink and You Missed It production: some song with a 4/3 time (I think), driving, unique and strong, the kind of compositional voice I’d rarely heard in the context of musical theater. And, er, well, um, I actually really like Abba. So, er, it was really just a right show/wrong time kind of thing … right?

Well, this is the facts: the Union has gone all out to make Chess the rock and roll musical co-directors Christopher Howell and Steven Harris must have imagined was at its core. The stage has been reconfigured as a thrust, with three or four rows of seats smashed between the brick walls of the theater and the rather overwhelming action on stage. There is COORDINATED MOVEMENT and SIDEWAYS LIGHTING and LOUD MUSIC and the whole thing made me feel like I’d been stuffed into a Donmar flavored custard cream cookie, which was REALLY COOL when I was being glamorized by the really intense everything but at other times just led to some serious show enjoyment problems which I’ll go into more detail in a bit.

The story is freaky, opening with the Hungarian spring being crushed by the Soviets, which somehow makes the underlying human cost of the cold war very tangible. It’s not just different ways of organizing economics, it’s not just a possible nuclear war, it’s people being shot in the streets and back alleys for dissident thoughts and families being used as pawns to manipulate their members. Wait, did I use a chess metaphor? Yes I did, and of course the whole show, of a Hungarian born American woman (Florence, Sarah Galbraith), a slightly nutso anti-Soviet American chess champion (Freddie, Tim Oxbrow), and his Russian rival (Anatoly, Nadim Naaman) is nothing but a game played by … well, not just the US and the USSR, but by the corporate interests sponsoring the chess matches, by Freddie against both Anatoly and Florence, and by Svetlana (the Russian agent, Natasha J Barnes) against pretty much everyone as long as she is able to show a success to her bosses. The whole thing starts to get a little Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy … but then for some reason in the middle of all this is a big dance number, One Night in Bangkok, which frankly just makes it all too surreal for words.

Unfortunately, because of the problems of the VERY LOUD BAND stage right (the side AWAY from the entrance to the theater) and the fact people were frequently singing with their backs to at least 1/3 of the stage, I found it very difficult to follow the lyrics and the occasional bits of spoken dialogue. I’m not sure if this was just an opening night problem, but it was just maddening, especially given that one of the awesome things about the Union is that they don’t have to mike people and you get to hear their unadulterated voices when they sing. Except, this time, I couldn’t, and neither could the guy sitting next to me, and neither could the guy sitting behind me and right in front of the band. It just sucks, because really this show felt so alive and cool and much better than I’d ever imagined a show about chess could be, and Florence was wonderfully heartbroken and determined (and man could she sing) and Freddie was fun and out of control the Arbiter (Craig Rhys Barlow) was all rock and roll. All in all, it was a vibrant production, but I feel like, given the sound quality, I really am not in a place to say for sure whether or not Chess is a good musical.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Friday, February 15th, 2013. It continues through March 16th, although I think at this point tickets will only be available by calling the Union Theater’s box office and praying for returns.)

Review – The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs – Waterloo East Theatre

February 13, 2013

I like Mike Daisey. His one man show, “21 in Dog Years: Doing Time at” was the perfect play at the perfect time in my life, when I’d been doing the grind at a bunch of dot-bombs who lured me in with the promise of getting rich off of stock options and then proceeded to work me to the bone with 80 hour weeks of repetitive labor and no attention paid to career growth or personal development. I was pleased to see that as he and I and Seattle all parted ways, he stayed in the business of being a tech topical monologuer, sort of a cross between Michael Moore and Spalding Grey; but it was a bit of a shock that the next big news I heard was him at the center of a scandal caused by his play The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I didn’t read about it much at the time, but was mostly just hoping that his career would survive; and it looks like it has, because it’s a year later, and his retooled version of the play is being presented at the Waterloo East Theater in London. Hurray! I could see for myself how his art had evolved over the years, but with the clear eyes of “this is a play” and not “this is a piece of reportage.”

What’s interesting, seeing this play, is the kerfluffle over to what extent what was described actually happened. Nobody disputes that FoxConn is a shit place to work and is unconcerned with the lives and health of its workers; I haven’t heard people expressing outrage that Daisey’s piece makes clear that our lovely little technological, first world society is built on the backs of abused workers. Daisey’s description of Steve Job’s evolution as a brand maker and megalomaniac is compelling as well, and shocked me most by revealing that once upon a time Apple encouraged people to hack its product – a harsh comparison with the “walled garden” approach today (including weeding out any “plants” determined to be out of date). It’s all so much more charming, though, because its filter is through the lens of a geek boy who was horrified to discover the truths about what sacrifices have been made to enable us to enjoy the little toys that make our lives so fun. And, for Daisey, it appears that the moment of horrified shock is, “Apple, you let us down.” How can you enjoy items of pure beauty with contaminated souls?

The show only runs 80 minutes and lacks a bit, I think, for not being told by a sweaty, overweight nerd; Edward Fromson is just a gorgeous man and, while I can certainly imagine him being an Apple fan, he seems like someone who’s never had to struggle with being popular. That said, the show was smooth and pulled you in, and somehow made backstage corporate shenanigans interesting. It also gave me an insight into a certain fandom I’ve never been a part of, the kind of people who, just from watching a newscast (and who WOULD be watching a corporate announcement in the first place), could be convinced to buy something just because it was really, really pretty. Will these people lose their devotion to the cause from this expose? I think not. But as a document of a subculture, a company, and the workings of today’s technological society, this play is still very relevant and engaging. And, hey, tickets were ony £12; I’d say it’s well worth the investment of both money and time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, February 10th, 2012. It continues through February 23rd.)

Review – Phantom of the Opera – Her Majesty’s Theatre

February 10, 2013

So … I’m an anti-Webberian. All of the excesses of 80s musicals seem to rest directly at Sir Andrew’s feet, from the tacky costumes of Cats to the “show it, don’t imagine it” helicopter of Miss Saigon (which, though not his show, seems his fault). And then there are the lyrics of his songs. I am a fan of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and to me it speaks poorly of Webber that his songs are written at a level of intelligence suitable for an eighth grade education. Witty jokes about politics and culture? Forget about it. Instead, you get shows that are MARKETABLE, with MERCHANDISE. Not my thing at all. Unless, of course, you put the cast on rollerskates, but I see that as a personal aberration, sort of like my appreciation of Abba, and in no way breaking the chain of horrors.

So what was I doing blowing a precious half-day’s holiday to see Phantom of the Opera, having not only bought a ticket for myself but for someone else? Well … it’s like this. I’ve got a friend (well, a couple, actually) who’ve got a WONDERFUL daughter, just adorable and so smart. She apparently goes around the house singing songs from musicals and Phantom of the Opera is one of her favorites (she seems to like spooky stuff, and I know her parents like this show). So when her birthday came around, her mom posted on Facebook that what her daughter had asked for for her birthday was tickets to Phantom, but when she found out that cinema and theater prices are really just not at all the same and it wasn’t really going to be possible, well, one little girl was very, very sad that her birthday present just really wasn’t possible.

And there I was, reading this, about a little girl whose dream for her birthday was to see her favorite show LIVE. It’s, basically, exactly the kind of dream I think SHOULD come true, for everyone. And here I am, seeing about three live shows a week without thinking about it (admittedly it helps that I’m trying to make sure all of my tickets are 15 quid or less), reading about her birthday wish that wasn’t coming true. And man, I may think Lloyd Weber is a pedlar of the mediocre but if on the other side of the equation is a small person WHO JUST WANTS TO SEE THE BEST SHOW IN THE WORLD IN PERSON who am I to question her tastes? I want EVERY little girl who dreams of seeing a musical RIGHT THERE ON STAGE to get to do that. And, you know, if I could make that dream come true just by, you know, spending a little money … why not? Maybe she had something to teach me about musical appreciation: I was sure she could teach me something about joy. And since I’d spent most of January being really sick and not going to shows at all, it seemed to me like the perfect way to blow the dosh I’d been accumulating by lying around on the couch while simultaneously getting to spend some time with friends, thereby attacking the isolation and mopiness caused by being ill in one blow. I was a bit worried that she was, perhaps, too young to be seeing a show, but I’m pleased to report that she was actually much better behaved than the gaggle of 18 year old Spanish girls who sat behind us talking out loud until I shushed them (which I had to do three times). Small child bounced and grinned and did NOT sing along; she was, basically, perfect.

Right. So, the show. I listened to it once years ago and had forgotten everything including any specifics of the plot, so I went into this as a blank slate. There is a theater in which operas are being produced (though we start the show long after this is all over), and accidents keep happening (one of them APPARENTLY INVOLVING A CHANDELIER, the other involving a mechanical monkey); this is because the theater has a “phantom” (which some people believe in) who is causing problems such as sandbags falling from the ceiling and people being accidentally hanged. Since he leaves notes (and is apparently getting paid off by the theater owner), it’s pretty clear that he’s real: so why do the people who’ve just bought the theater have a problem with accepting his existence? Dramatic tension, I suppose. BLAH minion BLAH love interest BLAH really good looking women showing off their legs BLAH can the beauty love the beast et cetera.

It was fun, actually, to see a show where I knew they’d spent all of the money they’d wanted to on costumes and scenery, so I didn’t have go wonder what they would have done if they’d actually been able to splash out. Instead I got the TRULY AMAZING “paddling the boat through a candlelit cave” scene, and WOWZA the costumes were really flash. I mean, in the very first scene at the opera, where they’re doing, um, an opera set in Rome with elephants, every single person was wearing something really, really detailed. This meant I was blown away during the masquerade scene (despite cringing at the song). I was actually so amazed by people’s boots I was not really able to focus on the action on stage and it took me ages to realize about 20% of the people standing on the staircase were actually statues (helps keep the hands overhead for a whole scene when you don’t actually have to rely on mere muscle).

And, well, if you’re going to do a show set at an opera, you’d really better make sure your singers can handle the job. I was actually really amazed at the powerful lungs of our two lady sopranos, and the truly ballsy music Webber had written to make sure you knew you were listening to people who could f**king sing. I’m not talking some kind of Whitney Houston pop stuff: I mean crazy Queen of the Night coloratura stuff, so far up the scale you start to not believe you’re actually hearing notes coming out of a human being’s throat. I can only imagine that these roles are the kind where people can only perform them for a few years of their career, when they are at their absolute maximum vocal range; but this show could choose to pick people who could do it rather than rewriting the music for lesser talents. It was, once again, really impressive.

Overall, I have to say, that as a work of “wow” theater, Phantom of the Opera delivered, and I can see why it’s so popular: it’s really very accessible and very showy and exactly the kind of thing you’d send people to if they were making a big trip to London and wanted a sampling of the kind of top-quality production a world theater capital can put on. I’m much more of a specialized audience, less willing to spend a bundle on a show for a “guaranteed” experience and more interested in seeing something that pushes me. And, well, I just didn’t like the music at all. It’s not my style.

That said … it was very much the style of one little girl, and afterwards, the current Phantom (Marcus Lovett) came to the stage door to meet her, the world’s youngest Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. His makeup was off and he was running out to get a bit of dinner, but he took some time to talk to her and even try to sing a few songs with her. For me, it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had, and the whole experience was really pretty much perfect, with a cherry on top thanks to his goodnatured, generous outreach.

So when I say, at the end of every review, was it worth what I paid for this ticket? I have to say for this show, what I got in exchange for two tickets was really priceless: a truly memorable experience that left me smiling from my rained-on hair all the way down to my (much less glamorous) boots.
The world's youngest Andrew Lloyd Webber fan - with @mar... on Twitpic
(This review is for a performance that took place the afternoon of Thursday, January 31st, 2013. Thank you to Get Into London Theater for their 35 quid ticket offer, it made this all much more doable!)

Review – L’elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love) – Opera Up Close at King’s Head Theater

February 6, 2013

I wasn’t planning to go to this, given that I am not an opera fan, but a last minute invitation from my husband and £10 tickets sealed the deal – if it was bad I could always leave at the interval, right? The posters looked quite cute, with their 1950s/60s Hollywood feel, and I do like classical music – though 19th century is not really my bag (I’m a Baroque girl). I was treated to a half pint (it is at the King’s Head after all) and in I went.

Walking into the theater, I was amused by the cute backdrop, with a swimming pool painted on it (the actors leaned against a floating mattress as if they were “in” the pool, while standing up) and cheap fake flowers making a technicolor budget set. Then our performers came on – two women in 50s bathing suits and cute sunglasses and three men – and BANG BANG they were singing. (Saying this I’m suddenly reminded of the scene where Adina is chasing her would be lover around with a water pistol – what a laugh!) The first ten minutes or so, though, I was desperate to find things to enjoy, because even though the performers were singing in English, everyone was going at the same time and I had a sudden feeling of DOOM DOOM DOOM I am never going to be able to follow a damned thing in this show! They were smiling, posing, making lovely music, but I just couldn’t get the context for what was going on and I was immensely frustrated.

Then “Nemorino” (I thought of him as “little Nemo”) , the pool boy, started singing about his love for Adina and, if I’m not mistaken, Adina’s friend was singing about what a terrible flirt Adina was. And … well, all of a sudden I was able to follow along with the story: Nemo wants Adina to love him, but Adina’s thing is to just be a flirt and stay free. The other, more rugged man at the poolside (he was supposed to be in the army but looked like Cary Grant so I wasn’t buying it) asks Adina to marry him, and she agrees, just to egg him on … but it seems, a little bit, so that she can also torture Nemo.

And then, well, the game was on. I loved having people come and sing, as if to me personally, from about three bodies away; and the lyrics were just so funny and modern: Adina claimed to be heartless like a “prom queen” and at some point I heard someone called a “cheeky monkey.” Normally with opera, well, of course it’s in a foreign language so you can’t really catch any jokes, but then when you do see it in English it’s some entirely bloodless translation that your granny would be sure to approve of. This was none of that: it was lively and sharp and really WORTH listening to, even better than Gilbert and Sullivan because it was all from an era that I’ve lived through (though I think the writer misunderstand the socioeconomic class inherent in “Pasadena” – it is not a place where bums come from!). I was sorry when I couldn’t hear what the singers on the other side of the stage were saying, because the audience on that side was laughing and I was missing out! Nice job, Thomas Eccleshare, you made me regret not buying the program so I could catch the jokes I missed.

After the interval, I came back to one of the most clever lighting effects I’d ever seen – clearly love was in the air! And the act raced along with several unexpected plot twists, but, of course, a happy ending, and it was all done within about two hours of its start. So much cleverness and wit for a mere ten quid at a preview (£21 after AND RESERVED SEATS)? What a stinking deal! And, let’s be honest, the singers were really good, the kind of talent people in London don’t realize we’re lucky to have. My final thoughts? Opera Up Close have got a hit on their hands!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, February 5th, 2013. It continues through March 16th.)

Mini-review – The Captain of Köpenick – National Theater

February 3, 2013

So … a play billed as a “savagely funny” featuring a criminal in fancy dress commanding an army regiment as he attempts to get identity papers? It sounded like a Kafka farce, a raucous good time, a chance for the National to show what it’s made of – perfect acting and stupendous stagework complimenting people racing around in military uniforms while they try to jump through bureaucratic hoops. I imagined the entire town turning to follow this mystery man, as with his questionable background he was able to finally provide them with the leadership they craved, with comic results.

It turned out The Captain of Köpenick was nothing of the sort, neither really funny nor quick moving. It’s almost entirely a musing on the way the system gangs up on the little people leavened with a thick condemnation of the German mind; if it hadn’t been written by a German, I would have found it racist (and I still found it offensive to say the Germans only want to follow orders). Given its creation at the start of the Nazi era, it’s a chilly warning of what was to come; but with its molasses-thick and almost entirely pointless first act, the endeavor just lacks a real reason to have had so many resources thrown at it. Antony Sher is painfully humane as the petty thief Wilhelm Voigt; but couldn’t we really have done it all in thirty minutes less and without any of the singing? Have people forgotten than less really is more? The last twenty minutes were pretty fun but the evening was an overall failure despite the likely better artistic merit of the script than, say, Turn of the Screw. As this was a preview, it’s possible it will get tightened up more; but as it is, I suspect there will be many ticket offers for this show, as it’s just not really worth making the effort for more than about 15 quid.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Saturday, February 2nd, 2013. It is booking through April 16th.)

Review – Turn of the Screw – Almeida Theater

February 2, 2013

The Almeida Theater’s bloggers’ evenings have been a great outreach program, making it possible for a small, changing group of dedicated theater junkies to see shows together on quieter nights and have extremely animated conversations with each other. It supports the community and gives us a chance to get together as a community (rather than by ones and twos) and interact with each other. I’m grateful for it; most bloggers buy all of their own tickets and getting a free one is a real treat, but the evenings themselves are fun because it’s great to see so many people that I may not have met in person before.

Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

Turn of the Screw, Almeida Theatre

Anyway, I was interested enough by the Almeida’s production of Turn of the Screw that I was planning on going anyway, and I’m pleased to announce that it is a solid night’s entertainment that delivers good value on the ticket price (and, being the Almeida, they have a very wide range of prices, from £8 to £32). I didn’t know anything about the story, honest, only that I had some kind of idea it involved a governess and some kind of ghosty goings on. I had a weak memory of an operatic version that made me think children were involved, possibly as ghosts … it was all very vague, and THAT’S HOW I LIKE IT. I mean, seriously, how spooky can a supernatural styley play be if you already know what’s going to happen? And that makes it hard to write a review, too, because I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Right, so: there is a governess (Anna Madeley). There is a twist that is utterly vital at the beginning of the play to making any of this make sense: she is under no circumstance to contact the man who is paying her to do this job. BUT WHAT IS GOING ON? You know at the beginning something happened to the previous governess. BUT WHAT? And is it going to happen to her?

It’s pretty clear from the way the stage is set up that there are lots of nice places for spooky going ons to happen, what with the GIANT WINDOW in the middle of the wall behind the set (thrust far forward so it can rotate and we can have set changes happening behind the bit we’re currently watching). And the EE EE EE! factor is cranked up by the use of creepy music and projections of flapping bats during scene changes. Happily this is mostly very effective in getting the audience cranked up to a mild screaming pitch, and despite the obvious THERE MUST BE A GHOST IN THE WINDOW set up, the designer/director also included all sorts of stuff I would have never anticipated (though I occasionally missed some of it due to looking here and there trying to figure out what was going on, or deliberately looking away because I didn’t want to jump in my seat and knock my program onto the head of the man sitting in front of me).

Now, I will complain a bit, because by the second act we have moved well beyond mild fright and were in a position where we were basically having ghosts on stage all of the time, and I had to wonder: is this what they wanted? Is this where it became a psychodrama? I never entirely was sure what to make of it, but the shock factor of a looming presence was never really matched by someone just marching around on stage while a whirly blue light was shone on them. And this meant at the end, well, I had kind of lost my ability to be frightened. But I still had a very good time, and I walked out with questions to ask myself that weren’t about the scenery, but underneath it all I had to wonder: now, seriously, would anyone have taken the order to not call the uncle given the circumstances? THAT was a mystery to chew over. But it was a fun night and a much better time than I had sitting through some ridiculous kumbaya crap at the National; three cheers for solid entertainment and NO DEEP LESSON TO TAKE HOME thank you!
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(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 29th, 2013. Performances continue through March 16th.)