Archive for June, 2013

Review – The Cripple of Inishmaan – Noel Coward Theater

June 12, 2013

Well, here is June and our third play of the first season of the Michael Grandage company: a show which, I assumed from the posters, was a one man jobbie with Daniel Radcliffe as the star. I imagined him grimly monologuing about his struggles as a handicapped person, but somehow got it in my mind we were going to be witness to a psychodrama in the style of “Beauty Queen of Leenane.”

Well. Rarely have my guesses from a title and publicity stills been more off. First, while occasionally dark, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a comedy. I thought maybe the preview-watching crowd I was a part of was just misreading the humor; but no, it’s pretty much comedy from the get-go. Bullying, madness, physical disabilities – what a laugh!

Second, Inishmaan is very much an ensemble piece, with lots of good interaction between the nine characters; Radcliffe is frequently not even on the stage. Instead, we get the charming and quirky residents of an Irish island town circa 1935: the dotty “aunties;” the aggressive red headed lass and her brother; the drunk; the loner with a boat.

This, in retrospect, is probably a good thing, as it’s Radcliffe who’s the weakest link in the production. Too physically healthy to be convincing as a cripple, he’s also mealy mouthed and a bit cutesy. Maybe he was just playing “Crippled Billy” for laughs; but I’m convinced the character had greater depths available. Or maybe Radcliffe just doesn’t have a knack for comedy. The role is both not a star turn in terms of time on stage, but also not one as performed.

That said, despite not being perfect, this is certainly an enjoyable show; and while the comedy is a bit too much at times, at least the jokes are genuinely funny. Overall, it was a good investment of my ten quid, and for the same price I would certainly recommend it.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on June 11th, 2013. It continues through August 31st.)

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Mini-review – The Perfect American – English National Opera

June 11, 2013

For me, the combination of the words “Phillip Glass” and “new opera” are pretty irresistible – which is remarkable if you consider how little I like opera. But his operas are, to me, perfect for the 21st century: very cerebral and extremely engaged with the high-culture zeitgeist. You might find this hard to believe about an opera with Walt Disney as its subject matter; but I think it’s just as applicable as it is for Einstein and Ghandi. Iconic figures with deep cultural impacts? You know that it’s true for all three of them. With Disney, you get an added layer of the image versus the reality – probably as true for Ghandi but manipulated in a more self-serving way for Walt. This production also dovetailed nicely for me with seeing Mike Daisey’s American Utopias in May; it explored the reality behind a lot of Disney mythology, as well as showing where Walt aimed higher than his successors were able to achieve. I felt convinced there was more than enough material to make an opera.

The story, though, winds up seeming a bit thin: it’s about Walt’s worries during his last few months of life. He sees himself as leaving a great legacy, as proven by his fame; but (as the opera shows) a lot of his achievements were based on editing out the past – both his crushing of the rights of his workers and his elimination of voices that spoke against his vision of what America was (nicely epitomized by the scene in which Walt lectures the animatronic Lincoln – from the Disneyland attraction – about how America was reduced as a nation if blacks are equal to whites – which it appears Walt had edited out of the speech Lincoln gave at his amusement park!). Walt cherishes the past he remembers growing up in Marceline, Missouri – but the abuse he and his brothers suffered (as revealed in the Daisey piece) is left out of the opera. Instead, we see his worried about getting his body frozen after his death, and his huge egotism … which really never falls like it would if The Perfect American had been plotted more like a Greek tragedy. Ah well.

Instead of rich story telling and immortal characters, what we get is a breadth of imagination in the presentation of this opera that I found so fully engaging it merits it the label “gesamtkunstwerk” – a full spectacle for the eye as well as being musically rich (in that Philip Glass way that I enjoy). While normally I hate animated backdrops on stage – too often they’re a choice made for cheapness, and/or they distract from what we should be focusing on, the performers – but in this show they are both incredibly appropriate and (shock!) gorgeous, in part because they are frequently shown on hanging cloth (which allows for additional dramatic manipulation of the images). There’s almost no animation related directly to the Disney ouvre, other than the melancholy three circles standing for the basic Mickey Mouse – instead, it shows the thoughts in Walt’s head or otherwise illustrates additively what is happening on stage. That said, the design isn’t overly reliant on the moving image – instead, there is also amazing use of subtle costumes (such as eyes drawn on hands that allow people to look cartoony – and blink), which allows us, the audience, to expand our imaginations and see birds, deer, squirrels, and monsters on the stage. I was entranced: everything was one hundred percent technically up to date and yet still adhered to the dictum of trusting us to make the leap rather than having everything spelled out for us.

While this show was not perfect, it was an excellent piece of theater and highly enjoyable. If you don’t like Phillip Glass, there probably won’t be enough to get you over the hump; but for me, it was as good as opera gets, and a wonderful opportunity to see a show that is really and truly fresh in a genre that is so frequently dominated by 19th century war horses illustrated with dusty realism. I’ll take Princess Mononoke versus Angry Birthday Walt any day, and so should you.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 6th, 2013. It continues at the London Coliseum through June 28th.)

Review – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory preview – Theater Royal Drury Lane

June 7, 2013

“I’ve got a golden ticket! I’ve got a golden ticket!” Or at least that was what I was singing to myself when I got £15 tickets to the brand new musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory currently previewing (thus a discount on the tickets!) at the newly renovated Theater Royal Drury Lane. I hadn’t been to that house since Anything Goes some eight years ago, though that had a lot to do with the programming – Shrek? Lord of the Rings? Somehow the stuff that was making it to one of London’s biggest theaters was not the kind of stuff I wanted to see. But Charlie definitely was – as one of the two Roald Dahl books I read growing up, it had a real appeal. And I’d enjoyed the movies. What kind of imaginative vision would drive the stage version? And would there actually be great songs in it so that it would wind up being the kind of musical that joined the pantheon of Shows For All Time? I just had to know! And, well, it was my roommate’s birthday, and a good present (since Once doesn’t seem interested in offering me reviewers comps).

My Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ticket. Note the names on the drink receipts - "Cadburys" and "Hersheys"

Note the names on the drink receipts – “Cadburys” and “Hersheys”

SO! There were certainly some preview hiccups, as our Charlie (I presume there’s more than one) forgot the lines to his song at one point, and there were some problems getting the grandparents’ bed to reassemble, but mostly the technical issues seem to be taken care of. I’d say the show is really 90% there, and that if you are in a hurry – just in London once this summer or in dire need of affordable tickets – you won’t be missing much if you go to a preview. Certainly the audience I was with thought so – I caught DEAD SILENCE coming from the 2nd balcony at one moment in the second act (rather than rustling, chatting, and whining, which you might expect from the percentage of kids in the audience) and there were lots of people standing up at the end clapping. It makes me think that the fact that that the songs were kind of boring you can’t hear their words didn’t really matter to anyone else there, but, you know, it’s not like a theater that big is really addressing itself to my tastes. I mean, hey! Seven people living in one dirty hovel trying to live off of a bowl of soup, yet all cheerful? It’s the tabloid media’s dream of how to handle poverty come to life!

What was fun about this show for me was the updated characters of Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee (now a child rap star and a video game fanatic) and, well, the Oompa Loompas. I expected they would have been done with naturally short people, but instead they were done sort of as combo people/puppets – which meant they were able to do incredible acrobatic feats that would have been entirely impossible with real people. These two things came together to electrifying effect in Mike Teavee’s final scene, a dance number called “Vidiot” that involved black light, glowing costumes, AND rollerskating Oompa Loompas. It was like it was made just for me.

So overall, I think this was a fun musical that will have a broad appeal, and that it’s likely to settle in for a long run in its home. I’d like to go back to see it in a few months and see what has changed, but I don’t think I could afford the tickets!

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. It’s booking into the far, far future – See Tickets has it through November but my understanding is that it’s scheduled well into 2013.(

Review – Amen Corner – National Theater

June 6, 2013

Will surprises never cease? Not only was I shocked to see the National producing a play by James Baldwin – someone I thought I’d never get to see in the UK – but then I was offered a complimentary ticket (though for a preview show). And it had finally started acting like summer (or late spring) as the sun had been shining for two days straight. WAS THE WORLD COMING TO AN END?

Clearly, it must have been: after struggling through one overblown, over-designed, overly sincere play after another in the Olivier, Amen Corner was (dare I say it) that rare ray of sunshine, a show that is a genuine pleasure to watch. Sure, the play dealt with racism (deeply embedded in American society in the 1930s) and sexism (a woman running a church was actually a big deal, but not so unbelievable that Baldwin didn’t feel comfortable putting Sister Margaret – Marianne Jean-Baptiste – in charge), but it was at its heart about people – about family relationships, power struggles, and the desire to make something out of our lives. I was afraid it was going to be too much about religion, but instead of idolizing or mocking the evangelical Christians who formed the core of this play’s characters, it showed them both as fallible and questioning – not on a pedestal but not objects of ridicule. And in a world where religion has become even more polarizing over the last decade, I found it heartwarming that a playwright from my country could both accept that people could be deeply religious and that people could be anti-religious, and both points of view had merit – that ultimately it was up to each person to choose a path that works for them, just as David (Margaret’s son, played by Eric Kofi Abrefa) does.

I enjoyed this play both as a celebration of the values I see as being American – primarily, that of tolerance – and of a facet of American culture (the Harlem renaissance, and the black culture that flourished in the age of segregation) that I have never seen on stage. Maybe Baldwin made it a little sweeter than it was in reality, but I enjoyed seeing any of it. I also enjoyed greatly the music that the director used to help create a sense of the place and the religious environment – as did the member of the audience sat next to me, mouthing the words as the congregation on stage sang one after another gospel standard. Man, did that make the Olivier come alive! And I don’t know if it was the music or the topic or if maybe the National reached out to different groups to make sure there were nice full houses for the previews, but looking around the auditorium, I saw that, for once, the audience at the National was looking a whole lot less like the cultural monotony normally seen there and a lot more like the multicultural palette that is London. It supported my theory that if you want to diversity your audience, try diversifying what stories you’re telling.

While the acting was still a bit clunky in places, the movement was generally smooth and I expect that as this cooks down through the last few previews, it’s going to come out of the oven even tastier. I feel a bit like Eric Kofi Abrefa may have been just a bit too old to play an 18 year old, but Marianne Jean-Baptiste was vibrant in her role, while Cecilia Noble was deliciously over the top as Sister Moore. What I wouldn’t give to see the whole kit and caboodle reunited for School of Scandal! Ah, well, maybe when the new artistic director comes in. Meanwhile, we’ve got months of Amen Corner to enjoy, and I both predict and hope for full houses for this Travellex sponsored (and thus affordable) show.

(This review is for a first preview that took place on Tuesday, June 4th, 2013. It continues until August 14th.)

Mini-review – The Seagull – Headlong at Richmond Theater (then Theater Royal Bath, Derby Theater)

June 4, 2013

Why, WHY would I go see a Chekhov play FOR THE SECOND TIME when I’d already seen it, and should be done with it for all time? Well … to be honest, the last (and first) time I saw it, I thought it was a pretty good play, not nearly as miserablist and pathetic as most Chekhov, with lots of comedy and not nearly as much of an air of “get your shit together, the revolution is about to come and wipe your entire lifestyle off of the pages of history” to it. And, well, Headlong has a really good reputation, and, finally, Lyn Gardner said I ought to (as in, directly to me, in addition to in her tips of the week column). I really thought I could get out of it … I mean, I was hardly going to Glasgow to see it on tour … but then I saw it was coming to Richmond. There were no excuses left: I knew they had £10 balcony seats and with a annual zone three travel card, well, getting there was no problem. The ticket was bought and off I went.

So … you don’t need to know about the plot, right? Fabulous aged actress spending some time at a country house with her sexy younger playwright boyfriend, getting peeved at her wanna-be playwright son (Alexander Cobb, with a delicious layer of puppy fat) and jealous of the son’s wanna-be actress not-quite-girlfriend (Pearl Chanda)? The really bad play the son does? Jealousy and tension and bad manners and a second act back at the country house “some time later” after rather a lot has changed for the two young people? Yeah, that Seagull, complete with all of the self-referential theater jokes (including a discussion of the symbolism of the dead seagull of Act One and how critics approve of plays that propound their own politics, said as if Michael Billington were being addressed directly) that, a century later, are actually still really funny.

It’s all set in the very much now, which means the droopy Goth character Masha (Jenny Rainsford) is tan and trim and wears short black dresses instead of Victorian mourning garb, and glam mom Irina (Abigail Cruttenden) has tousled blond hair and goes about in khaki capris and white Oxford shirts. So, you wonder, can it really work nowadays, when having a child out of wedlock isn’t really the kind of thing that ruins you for life, and women are perfectly capable of having careers and not required to get handouts from their relatives if they’re not employed? The answer is an unqualified yes – unless you have a problem with the use of four letter words on stage (as one couple I heard in the bar did) or find it extremely jarring when someone asks to have the horses brought around so they can go to the station. The hassle of modernizing everything would have been genuinely inappropriate and the out of place bits (frankly making a living off of short stories published ON PAPER seems more of an anachronism than plowing fields with animals) were easy enough to glide over once you were in the groove of the play.

And what a groove it is … so much sexual energy (my heavens!) and such a sense of watching lives teetering on the edge of catastrophe. The whole thing is brought into incredible relief by the stripped down set, just a gray backdrop (that occasionally has a little something sprayed onto it) and a giant trestle that plays the role of seasaw, dock, and dinner table equally well. You’ve got almost nothing to look at but the actors, and it’s really just perfect; it’s treating Chekhov like the Italians do their food – fresh oil, some pepper and salt is really all you need, because the miracle is in how fresh and tasty the ingredients are.

Normally I make really, really bad analogies, but this one is actually just perfect for this show. Chekhov shouldn’t need ultra realistic sets and 100% accurate costumes; he creates characters that are real enough that you can believe their feelings and their backstories. Headlong appreciates that and lets you experience everything that’s right in this play. And, well, maybe the second half was a little long, and it is certainly gloomy in parts, but it was basically perfect. I won’t be seeing any more Chekhov for a long time, but this was, actually, really worth the effort.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 1st, 2013. It opens tonight in Bath: the production continues touring until June 22nd.)

Mini-Review – Sons without Fathers (a new adaptation of Platonov) – Arcola Theater

June 3, 2013

Oh, God, not just Chekhov but THREE HOURS OF CHEKHOV! What is a girl to do? I hate Chekhov and I’d already seen two three hour (and one of them three hours plus) shows in the previous three days! But … I got a call from a good friend saying she had an extra ticket for this play by Chekhov (that I’d never seen before) at the Arcola, and the ticket was for a Friday (meaning that getting home at midnight wouldn’t be quite so painful, a very important calculation when seeing a show in Dalston), and she’s the one who always goes with me to all of the Ibsen plays … it was time to pay the piper.

And, of course, because it was the Arcola, it was time for a big plate of Turkish barbeque from 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, and a box full of baklava from Tugra to power me through the interval. Dreary depressing really really long doubtlessly will make me hate myself for going Chekhov: my stomach is full and I have a box full of baklava. Bring it.

So we’re jammed into this teensy little space (which, you know, is the Arcola), and there’s about nine actors rolling around on stage, being drunk, downing vodka, acting pretentious, basically begging for a good slap, and I start cracking open my box of honeyed flaky yumminess and wondering how I’m ever going to make the near two hours to the interval. And man, we’re hitting the stereotypes: the sweet little religious wifey, the husband who madly loves his indifferent spouse, the gorgeous over the hill actress, the snooty intellectual who thinks he’s superior to the lot … and at the heart of this whirling mass of mutts from the Chekhovian puppy mill is Platonov, a total drunk of a schoolteacher who is only ever seen in a classroom to sleep off his hangover, who glugs vodka from the bottle, who loves to tease people beyond the point of cruelty and yet for some reason is adored by his male friends and every woman in the play (including his wifey). He was just so generally nauseating I couldn’t help but root for the intellectual as the only person that actually hated Platonov. Yes! He’s a jerk! Why make a play about him? Time to line them all up against a wall and let the tide of history take its course.

And … well, I, I … I kind of got caught up in it all. I still thought Platonov was a jerk but I wanted to know what had happened with him and Sofya (the indifferent wife) in the past. And then the element of danger comes in, with a horsethief whose been slipped money to defend the aesthete’s dad’s honor by cutting Platonov up (an assignment he accepts despite also being indebted to wifey for her kindness) … will he do it?

While the world can’t possibly be full of as many guns, suicides, and murderers as it does in Chekhov’s plays, there’s no doubt there are still plenty of drunks and cheaters out there, and Sons without Fathers has them in spades. I can’t say that they are what pushed me around the bend to enjoying this show – the lively, intense performances (how could I possibly buy Mrs Platonov?- but I did thanks to Amy McAllister’s skill) – but it ultimately got to a point of both misery and realism that I found truly engaging. Yeah, this play is about a bunch of people on a downhill trajectory, but not only are they going really fast, they’re very believable. In fact, at the end, I was convinced it was only about 10 PM and not 10:30 – their speed pulled me along (especially the electrifying title performance by Jack Laskey). Leg twitches? Numb bum? Nope, just three straight hours of really hot performances. I’ll still make sure this is the end of me and Chekhov for this year, but as for Sons without Fathers, there were no regrets.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 31st, 2013. It continues through June 15th.)