Archive for July, 2013

Review – Titanic (the Musical) – Southwark Playhouse

July 31, 2013

There is something just terribly exciting about seeing a full song and dance show done in as small of a space as the Southwark Playhouse. The actors are so _right there_, brushing past you when they walk, nearly bursting your eardrums when they sing at full volume (with minor amplification). And with a director who really knows how to move people around and use minor stage setting to, well, build The Titanic right there in your lap, well, how can you not want to leap up and give a big standing O at the end of the show. Such daring! Such imagination! So very much singing!

So, I imagine, 90% of the audience must have felt after seeing last night’s final preview of Titanic, but I was not one of them. The costumes, the choreography, the singing, it was all very good …but I was bored. Bored bored bored. Bored as in really desperately hoping for the iceberg to show up after the first hour. Bored despite all of the riches on display.

And why? Because this musical is a dog. There’s no attempt to build a story or create more than two dimensional characters: the entire first act is really just about creating sympathy so we can feel more torn up at the end. And the songs, well, I was really, really hoping I would walk out whistling a tune, but I don’t think there was one, not in the whole show.

I did find three songs noteworthy, the best of them being the song the aged Strauss couple sing to each other about their love still being strong after decades – it had the same wistful quality as the pineapple song from Cabaret. I also enjoyed the telegrapher’s song (an unusual topic and a nice life story) and the “blame” song the ship’s owner, engineer, and captain hurled at each other.

But but but … No. Not enough. Not enough for me, anyway. I’m guessing it’s beautifully done enough to suit many people’s tastes, but any show where you are actively wishing for a disaster to happen cannot be seen as a success in anyone’s book.

(This review is for a performance that took place July 30th, 2013.)

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Review – The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – Royal Court/National Theatre of Scotland at the Welsh Center

July 30, 2013

Rarely have I left a theater full of the sense of elation I felt at the end of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. It all seemed so unlikely: after the catastrophe of Fram the chances of getting me inside a theater for a verse play (rhyming couplets no less) were hovering below zero. But the word on the street was that the show actually worked (and, in fact, was good) – the text and the unusual location (inside the pub at the top of the Welsh Center) blending together and reinforcing each other. By the time I’d decided I should go, it was almost too late – but Royal Court $10 Mondays are still in effect and I managed to snag a day-of seat. And for a bargain hunter like me it was a complete bonanza, as everyone is offered a free shot of whiskey AND free sandwiches in the venue! I was sold before it even started. Whee!

The concept of this play is that there is a female academic studying ballads (Prudencia Hart, Melody Grove) who gets snowed in while visiting Kelso for a conference. She winds up not just stuck with her most irritating colleague, but locked in a pub where a bad folk night somehow transitions into a nightmarish karaoke evening, celebrating the shortest night of the year. And then ….

Well, somehow, with this fairly plebeian setting, you wouldn’t expect this story to make the transition to High Ballad Fairy Tale very well, but because of the use of the couplets all the way through (until the interval), I was already in a mindset of heightened reality – rules were being broken and, well, _things_ were possible, especially after the shock of the blackout. And, may I mention, the lighting design for this show was REALLY good – flashlights, candles, and normal florescents all combined to create a very magical atmosphere. (That said I had some problems with the sound design and lost about 20% of the words – something about people ten feet away speaking with their backs to me while a stand fan roared behind me was not working. I actually checked the script at one point during the play to figure out something I’d missed. That’s not good.)

At the end of the show we were cheering and singing and, even if we’d been encouraged by the cast, well, I was completely into it. I’d just been on, not an undoing, but an amazing journey with one Miss Prudencia Hart, and there was a lot to be happy about (including the fantastic music, much thanks to Annie Grace’s talents, including her lovely voice). And YOU might cheer because 1) as it’s cooled outside, the pub is much more pleasant and 2) although it’s sold out, there will a final series of shows in Peckham from August 5th through 9th.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 29th at 8 PM. Its final date at the Welsh Center is August 3rd. And boo to the Royal Court for merely listing the actors as “cast” – there isn’t even any photos on the website to help me, so I wasn’t able to credit even one of the men who performed in this show.)

Review – Words and Music – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

July 28, 2013

Winter entirely passed without an announcement of this year’s Lost Musicals‘ season (normally starting in March!) and, I have to admit, I was getting a little bit worried. But then it finally showed up in May, three shows (Noel Coward’s Words and Music; Burrow’s and Merril’s Holly Golightly;” and Cole Porter’s Around the World, starting in July and going through November, all at Sadler’s Wells. As ever, there’s a discount if you buy all three shows; be encouraged by me and go for it.

This afternoon’s show was prefaced with a bit of an apology from Ian Marshall Fisher: although Lost Musicals is intended to highlight forgotten works of the golden age of American musicals – but Words and Music doesn’t really qualify. It was written by Noel Coward – a British composer – for a British audience. The plan had been to show Coward’s Set to Music, in which he recast many of the tunes from W&M for America, but Fisher had not been able to track down the music despite much searching. So we were presented with this show instead, but since it featured many now well known songs and had not been remounted professionally since 1932 (ditto Set to Music but since 1939), it did seem to meet the bar for the series.

That said, the format of an unrelated series of songs done as a revue is not one I really like – I’m a much bigger fan of plot and character than just tunes. And while performed with panache, gusto, and wit (standouts were the incredible ham Vivienne Martin and the sexy and sassy Issy van Randwyck), but I found my attention drifting. I’m glad to have heard “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs and Englishman” in their original settings, but, well ,to me this evening was really for the hard core types. I tend to think I am one, and I must be because I’m glad I went, but if this doesn’t get another professional production again I feel confident it will be for all of the right reasons.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday July 14, 2013. It continues at Sadler”s Wells Lilian Baylis Theater on Sundays through August 4th.)

Review – Circle Mirror Transformation – Royal Court at a real community center near Haggerston

July 19, 2013

If you see as many plays as I do, you may have to admit you have certain … weaknesses. It might be for a theater, a performer, a director, or something more obscure such as “plays with puppets” or “plays written with community involvement” (both of which are horrors for some and thus must be pleasures for others). I’m soft for site specific plays, Ibsen, Pinter, new plays, and, um, Imelda Staunton.

I’m sorry! It’s really embarrassing to me because I am really anti-celebrity (especially as a gimmicky way of getting punters to buy tickets) but … well, I think she’s become MORE famous since I’ve developed my man-crush on her, and the only reason it even exists is because SHE’S AWESOME ON STAGE. But, see, the embarrassment comes in because I first saw her in a movie, Vera Drake, and she blew me away. And then WOW I moved to London where WOW Staunton could be seen IN A PLAY which I immediately booked tickets to (There Came a Gypsy Riding at the Almeida – this was before this blog existed but I’ve migrated my review). Then she returned in Entertaining Mr Sloane and was so funny I nearly peed myself laughing. And she sings (Sweeney Todd)! So, in short, I consider my fannishness towards La Staunton COMPLETELY reasonable given that she’s, basically, awesome in everything. (But it’s still embarrassing given that most people recognize her from a trashy movie series of the sort that tends to send non-theater aficionados to the box office.)

Anyway, without her, I might not have been tempted to see Circle Mirror Transformation. Plot: a bunch of people in a small town in Vermont sign up to take an acting class, with surprising results. Reality: IT IS IN AN ACTUAL COMMUNITY CENTER NEARLY 90 MINUTES FROM MY HOUSE AND IT WAS 32 DEGREES OUTSIDE AND THE BUILDING WAS NOT AIRCONDITIONED. And the plot sounded cringetastic in the worst possible way. And yet I called the box office in the hopes there might be a return ticket for the matinee DURING THE ROASTINGEST PART OF THE DAY because 1) the show was sold out yet I was ever hopeful 2) I still wanted to go 3) I don’t have a job so weekday matinees are possible 4) I was hearing good things about it. And yes there was a ticket and YAY off I went to the darkest depths of Dalston.

Surprisingly, I’d actually been to the venue before – it was the home of Retz’ The Trial, but it was the main cafe area that had been set up as a theater, with bleachers rising up in front of a flat, gym-like floor illuminated by overhead fluorescents. With a piano in the back and various junk scattered on the sides, it required no effort at all to make it a community center in my mind! The staff was kindly handing out glasses of water, and we were promised (as we sat in the 32 degree minimum building!) that if we wanted to leave at any point, they would break with normal polity and let us back in at an appropriate time – indeed, they were willing to refund us our money now if we didn’t feel like we could make it through. I whipped my fan out of my bag (thinking ahead!), tucked the bottle of water at my feet, and settled in for the duration – two hours straight through.

I think it was a testament to both the high quality of the acting – all around, not just of one person – that not a single person left the show at any point during this sweltering afternoon. Watching the “learn how to think like an actor” exercises was somewhat painful at time – and included long, uncomfortable (and very, very natural) pauses – but as we worked through the various scenes (most quite short) and we got to know the characters and they got to know each other – well, something very believable happened, and we were watching an acting class with a bunch of bored/lonely/untalented people all taking it for their own reasons, and we were very interested in what was going on, and where it was going.

And then it was the last night of class, and people were saying their goodbyes, and people had changed, and the lights came up and we were applauding, and, wow, so maybe there were a few too many breathing scenes or maybe too many “set people up as furniture” scenes, but it had made the experience come alive. And it was over, for them and for us, and we were walking out into the cooling evening, and I thought, my God, it was actually totally worth it. And Imelda Staunton is still awesome, but so was everyone else, and I wanted to hug all of my fellow theater goers, because it had really made me feel like I was back in America and hugging is just what you do after a group experience like that.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Wednesday, July 16, 2013. It is sold out but tickets become available sporadically on the Royal Court Website, and it’s absolutely worthwhile to call and check on returns. In addition, the person at the box office said no one on their wait list had yet been turned away, so if you’re reading this and wondering if you should roll the dice and go queue, Simon says “yes.” The last day is August 3rd. Now together, everybody: breathe, and slowly count to ten, one at a time.)

Review – A Season in the Congo – Young Vic Theater

July 18, 2013

It’s rare that I see a history play and immediately want to run out and read more about the subject at hand. The birth of a free nation in Africa: who would have thought it could be such compelling theater? This play, written shortly after the events in it took place and by an African (Aimé Césaire) is electric and unapologetic. It takes facts and people and builds personality and immense drama; all centering around the central, charismatic figure of Patrice Lumumba, the father of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Things may have gone south afterwards but, well, when he speaks of his dreams for his country – all of the tribes united, everyone under one banner – I couldn’t help but hear Henry V speaking before the battle of Agincourt, or Martin Luther King giving the “I Had a Dream” speech – a truly great leader with an endless well of optimism and a dedication to building the best future for his countryman. You could hardly have asked for a dreamier casting than Chiwetel Ejiofor, because he carried across that passion and dedication without a trace of egotism or self-consciousness. He spoke, and I believed; knowing, with my awareness of modern history (and gaps in my knowledge of the 50s or 60s, when this play is set), that somewhere along the line things did not go to plan.

This could-have-been-dry story is enlived by music and dance (not at the expense of story, but illustrating it); puppetry (actually, this was a weak point); a set with no moving pieces that still effortlessly changes from living room to prison to bar (the front rows are at tables as if they are out for cocktails) to market square; and twelve or so actors who somehow fill the space as if they were forty. It’s all sparse, actually, not heavy handed in its creation of a time and a place, giving us room to use our imagination to create airplanes and battlefields, dance halls and torture rooms. I was amazed at how quickly time had passed between the start and the end of the first act, and was ready to get back and see the rest of the story – I could not have asked for a more compelling drama. It was like the energy of Fela! combined with the passion of Malcolm X (per Spike Lee) – the whole theater was crackling.

In fact, it was so compelling that I wanted to research it more to figure out to what extent it was pure hagiography and to what extent true; Aimé Césaire must have omitted a few dark decisions to make Patrice Lumumba appear so … well, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln as presented to my eyes as an American child came to mind. But … that’s something I’ll look into on my own time, rather than dumping it in my review. I went to see this as a work of theater, and it was every inch a success. Don’t miss it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 17th, 2013. It continues at the Young Vic through August 24th.)

Review – Twelfth Night – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 14, 2013

As mentioned in my review for Taming of the Shrew, I will book for anything that Propellor puts on, because I think they are the best Shakespearean theater company in Great Britain. The combination of original staging, impeccable acting, and transfiguration of the gender expectations puts me into an entirely more receptive state of mind than the “let’s do it all in the most authentic/detailed fashion possible” style I feel is very popular.

And … well, once again I booked for a play I don’t enjoy because of the company. The Twelfth Night subplot of the humiliation of Malvolio doesn’t sit well with me and goes on far too long. The scenes with Viola all sit well with me – I love watching her discomfort both at Olivia’s flirtations and Duke Orsinio’s too-well-received affections – but there’s too much in this play that feels like padding. Maybe a version in which all scenes with Sir Toby Belch were cut out would suit me better; but this is the third time I’ve seen this play in three years and really, it gets boring. If neither Simon Russell-Beale or Mark Rylance can make this show work for me, it just isn’t going to happen.

Except, well, Mark Rylance did make the show work for me: his Olivia was like cut glass, so full of self-importance and yet dragged down by mourning that her sudden change into chickenhawk worked for me. And the Olivia of Propellor’s production wasn’t able to get to that level of comedy, which meant we were reduced to looking to Sir Andrew Auguecheek for laughs (not that he wasn’t very well played but the character frustrates me).

For original staging, we had the duel between Viola and Auguecheek staged in a boxing ring, and the truly lovely shipwreck sequence, done with a ship in the bottle (I love how Propeller really makes less count for more). And Malvolio was truly pathetic and broken, and it was great to see the heavily abused Katherine (of Shrew) returned as a rather swaggering, sexy Sebastian … but … I probably could have passed on this one. I’d just seen in in November and its shortcomings were too fresh for me to overcome my dislike for them, and it’s not like anyone is going to do a version of this in which all of the things I don’t enjoy are cut. So: a good production, a very good Twelfth Night, but on a lovely summer evening I’d probably just as soon have sat outside and had a nice picnic with the actors instead.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 10th, 2013. It continues through July 20th at the Hampstead Theater. They’ll be back next year for Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, so keep it in mind and remember to book early.)

Mini-review – Crookback – Tim Welham at Etcetera Theater

July 13, 2013

“Woe betide the reviewer who goes to three Shakespearean plays in a week, for she shall be tired by the last one, and peevish.”

Some weeks ago I received an invitation to see a one man version of Richard III – called “Crookback” – performed at a pub theater in Camden (the Etcetera, over the Oxford Arms). It’s a really great script, one of my favorite Shakespeares thanks to Propeller’s excellent version of two summers ago, and I thought, given the great success of Alan Cumming’s Macbeth, this could easily make the transition to a great one man show.

Little did I account for the collective powers of two previous nights of Shakespeare and the heat of a London summer as experienced in the poorly ventilated top floor of a pub.

Tim Welham’s performance was fantastically physical (he ended practically dripping in sweat) – while his hand was nearly always clamped to his body in a sort of bionic vise, with just one other arm and his voice (and a few hats) he conjured a series of other characters, from Margaret (her arm spiralling and grasping like a crone’s) to Buckingham (with his odd American accent). He managed to keep a generally clear delineation between all of the various mains (which almost entirely consisted of “people Richard kills”), and rollicked us along from one merry murder to the next, assisted by a chalkboard (where names were crossed off when appropriate) and a tape recorder.

To be honest, this approach was not what I was expecting. I thought this show would be far more focused on Richard and his thoughts and not be working so hard to drag the other characters in. And the plethora of other characters finally wound up overwhelming me at the point of the death of the boy prince. By the time the swirl of voices came out of the tape recorder (as if to imitate Richard’s fracturing conscience), we were on Bosworth field and I had, genuinely, lost the plot. I was too damned hot and really just ready to be out of the room and cooling down somewhere, but I recognized “my kingdom for a horse” was my freedom bell and soon, we were out.

While Welham was a deliciously convincing Richard, the script itself needed further reworking to reduce the noise and distraction and center more on the key characters. I refuse to entirely blame the heat for my impatience; more could be done to make this work in this format. However, for Shakespeare fans, Crookback is a good stab at the format, though perhaps better enjoyed in open air.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 11th, 2013. It continues through July 13th (tonight). Be sure to dress lightly i.e. sleeveless shirt and shorts, and take advantage of the water they offer as you go in.)

Review – The Taming of the Shrew – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 12, 2013

Shakespeare has a few plays I really don’t like. A few I don’t like because they are boring; one (Winter’s Tale) because it’s nonsensical; one because of the violence (Othello); and, well, one because of the misogyny. That’s right, The Taming of the Shrew is a play I actively avoid, because watching a man torture a woman in a comedy just doesn’t tickle my funny bone one little bit. I find it more abusive than Othello, because it makes the audience complicit in Kate’s destruction.

But then there’s Propeller. I think they’re the most outstanding performers of Shakespeare in the country; and, given that it’s an all-male troupe, I’d expect they’d bring something really different to this play. And I’ve been booking for everything they do since their outstanding Richard III; I was just going to have to trust the company to make the best silk purse possible out of this sow’s ear. So I bought my tickets (months in advance!) and waited.

As you would hope, Propellor produced this as a very lively show, with the usual “everybody in the cast sing” moments as well as some rocking out (I doubt the electric guitar was period appropriate but, you know, roll with it); piles of physical interactions and fun staging that still made a virtue of simplicity – much better suited to my tastes than the National’s typical over-heavy set dressings. And the comedy was not limited to the usual “hip thrust to indicate sexual innuendo in the script” nonsense – in the scene where Petruchio shows up to the wedding ill-clad, he is costumed in a fringed leather jacket … and a sumo wrestler’s underpants, aligned so that when he turned his back to the audience and lifts his arms, we were all mooned. (Somewhat more horrifying was the view from the front – my housemate and I were in cringing hysterics because of the nut cleavage. Someone needs to teach this man how to tuck better.)

But did we manage to change the play into one that was not horrifying? Well, no. Punk rock Katherine (with her bleached blond hair and tattered stockings) came off more than ever like someone who’d been mentally abused. Her final scene, in which she admonishes her sister and another new bride for being inappropriately lacking obedience toward their husbands, has been, when I’ve seen this before, kind of a triumph for Petruchio, as Katherine has been restored to a “natural” state for women, obedient and yet still intelligent. In this version, Katherine appeared to be a broken, abused prisoner of war, utterly humiliated and abased, her natural vivacity destroyed. Her changed seemed profoundly wrong.

At the end, when Petruchio is told that it was all a dream (or a play), I can’t help but wonder just what Shakespeare was saying about his own comedy – that it was meant to be an outrageous exaggeration … or not? Despite the overall excellence of this show, I have not been converted to this play, but I think Propeller will probably give you a chance to see it in as good of a form as it will get.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 8th, 2013. It continues at Hampstead Theatre through July 20th. Next year they’re doing Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, which I’m looking forward to much more.)

Review – The Night Alive – Donmar Warehouse

July 11, 2013

I do two basic sorts of reviews on this blog. One is a production focused review, for plays I’ve seen before or dance/orchestral performances; the other is a text-focused review. The second is for new plays, or plays I’ve never seen before. I very much like going into a play knowing as little about it as possible (other than “it’s good”). Since I didn’t study theater after high school this isn’t too hard (even for some things Shakespeare wrote), but I also actively avoid reading scripts of plays I haven’t seen. Sure, I want to see everything Pinter and Ibsen (and, I think, Strindberg) have written; but I want to SEE them, live, on stage, not try to imagine them as I turn pages. Ditto watching them on the small or large screen: I want to watch theater IN the theater.

And I want to see new plays – lots of new plays. So I was thrilled when I managed to score 10 quid front row tickets to the Donmar’s sold-out production of The Night Alive, Conor McPherson’s latest show. I’ve had mixed experiences at his plays; The Veil had me out the door at the interval, whereas The Weir had me hanging on every word and gaping at the brilliant character creation. Kinda hard to believe it was the same guy, huh? But I hoped that the genius of the earlier work would prove the rule, and the flop of the historical ghost story would be the “exception.”

I found myself a bit baffled as to the “where and when” of this play – the setting was a shabby bed sit, with papers and trash strewn everywhere and two single beds in the room – the bathroom a clapped together room tucked in the back with more crap on top of it. Based on the presence of energy drink cans and bottled water, I figured it could have been set at any time from the early 2000s to the present (although I was told that the coin operated electricity meter had been completely phased out, so perhaps this was some ten years back – I was short on cash so no program or cast list to illuminate me).

As it stands, the play reconfirmed for me McPherson’s mastery of natural speech patterns as well as his ability to create fully realized people out of text on a page. (Doubtlessly the actors have to take some credit for this too, but it’s the author who can make me believe that the person speaking on stage existed as a child.) But the plot was … elliptical (and I think the reason why the two women behind me in the ladies’ loo queue said they hated the play). It was very much “moving forward in time,” but in some ways it seems that nothing happened or was resolved … none of the characters changed much (other than falling in love).

But … I loved it. Life doesn’t always make sense of have a plot, but this play was more than just “a few scenes from the life of a tightfisted Irish scalawag” – it gave me the same elated feeling at the end as the brilliant Constellations did, and for the same reason: its message was, “In this short life that we live, all we can hope for is to make a human connection. This is rare and precious: treasure it.” I walked out feeling like Ciarán Hinds (as the scalawag) and Caoilfhionn Dunne (as Amy) had given us a tremendous gift. What a lovely, lovely play it was.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 4th, 2013. It continues through July 27th. Warning: contains graphic violence that I found quite disturbing.)

Review – Tutto bene, mamma? – The Print Room

July 2, 2013

After seeing the brilliant Going Dark at the Young Vic last year, I was all afire for a chance to do another play in which sitting in a REALLY dark room was part of the experience – in the case of Going Dark, the experience of going, and then being, blind. And Tutto bene, mamma? at the Print Room seemed to take it even further, as the play is performed in complete darkness for both actors and audience (I kind of think the actors had infrared goggles on, though, as they were walking around the set). What were we going to experience that required sitting in the dark? What would it mean to “share a world that is in complete darkness” with the actors? How were our heightened (other) senses going to be made use of? What would be learn?

In the case of this play, I think there is no doubt that “they accomplished so little with so much.” The sound design was incredible (nicely capturing the sounds of the city, people having two way conversations on a cell phone, the use of stoves, locking doors, jingling keys, etc.), and there was even an attempt at olfactory creation (I smelled lavender and onions: my husband smelled a burnt cake); but with nothing to see (and a lot being described), it was my ears and my nose that made this play completely unbelievable. First, the person playing the young boy simply sounded too old. I know a child’s voice is not really possible for someone with long vocal cords to do: but with the body, it’s easy to convince an audience that what you’re watching is a ten year old, not an adult. Instead, our actor (actress, I think) characterized a child by using a speech impediment, turning their “S”s into “Th”s. This was grating and made it seem to me like the child was meant to be somehow mentally impaired.

Then, well, there were the smells, or rather, lack of them. In a house as full of rot as this place would have been, you should have been able to really smell the reek and not just hear the flies buzzing around. The smell is mentioned, but nothing is there; and given that other items had nasal enhancement, the lack of engagement on this level for this critical area just … well, left a gap. Sure, the child was talking incessantly about what was going on and building the story in our heads (of the “scene” in front of us), but … um … it just wasn’t believable. And the child wasn’t believable, either: smart enough to understand hibernation but not smart enough to understand death?

At the end, it seemed like I’d sad through a much longer play than the 50 minutes it was advertised at. I’ve decided that 90% of the fault of this play is the script: the child is not written to be believable, and so he was not. And, really, while this may have been based on a “haunting real-life story,” it just didn’t make for a good play; in fact, there was only one moment (a conversation between the boy and his mother near the end of the play) where the darkness really, really worked. Otherwise, it’s only purpose was to let it get by without the budget for the special effects it would have needed to have worked if we could have seen what was happening in front of us, and to hide the horror of an adult playing a child very, very poorly.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, June 22nd, 2013. Based on the nearly empty house, I think word had already got out about what a stinker this play was. It continues through July 6th.)