Archive for August, 2013

Review – (How can you get cheap tickets for) Book of Mormon – Prince of Wales Theater

August 31, 2013

The hype around Book of Mormon (the musical) has been incandescent. Aside from it winning millions of Tonys and being massively sold out in New York (while we in London could just wait and hope!), it had the even WORSE reputation of actually being a good musical … with good songs … and a traditional aesthetic at its core. And when it finally came to London, the cheapest seats were … £37.50. This was NOT what a budget conscious theater lover wanted to hear. “Well!” I thought, “I can get cheap tickets during previews!” Aaand … previews came and went and the deals were still not affordable. “It’ll run for a while and then the prices will go down!” Six months later, nada. And the ticket lottery? Reports from Twitter were of a hundred people waiting in line for those twenty one golden tickets – basically, waste your afternoon there and still get nothing plus you’re left with a wasted evening on your hands.

So what’s the secret to getting cheap tickets to Book of Mormon? It’s easy: buy the £37.50 tickets a few months in advance, go with a group of ten or more and get the “top price” tickets for £49, or wait in line day after day and see if you have luck with the lottery. There is nothing cheap to be had ANYWHERE, so give up and fork over. Or wait for another two years – Hairspray finally dropped in price, so it could happen to this musical, as well. Patience is a tightwad’s second best friend.

But I am not patient. And I had an old friend ask me to go with, and, er, I thought he was going for the group rate, so I said yes … only to discover he’d booked us in for £65 tickets. Man. This is what happens when you let other people buy. So I grit my teeth and just hoped that through some miracle it would be worth it. God knows I had get to see a musical that I really thought merited anything more than £35.

Good news and bad news: it was actually good enough to justify the cost. I’M SO SORRY TO TELL YOU THIS. I am the home of affordable theater, I love to tell people that yes, you can go to the theater on a budget, but in the “home truths” department, this stuff costs money to do and kind of frequently, it’s because shows are either losing money (West End) or the cast/crew is not being paid (or getting just peanuts – true for many fringe shows) that we’re able to see full-on shows like Southwark Playhouse’s Titanic or Malachite Theater’s titus Andronicus for prices I consider a fraction of their true value.

The prices for Book of Mormon do reflect what the market can bear, but it’s still less than it cost in New York, and I bet there’s still a bit of subsidy going on. What do you get for your money? A completely right-on cast singing great songs with the kind of joy and enthusiasm you really only see in a show that is at it’s very peak of popularity. I knew they’d been doing it night after night, but it still felt fresh. And, well, it was, because as a old-school musical fan I can’t tell you how long I’ve been waiting to see a show I could really just lose myself in. Book of Mormon is, at its heart, and old-fashioned buddy comedy that actually manages to never be mean about either the religion most of its characters follow or the situation in really poor countries in Africa. It was funny, but it was still very real … well, except for where the story went (and the hysterical “Satan dancing with Johnny Cochrane and Jeffrey Dahmer” dream sequence, LOVED IT!). It sent me out into the night feeling utterly happy about everything. And, really, that feeling is one that it’s hard to put a price on.

(This review is for a performance attended in early August. It’s carrying on until, um, 2014, at least. And the Prince of Wales theater is totally classy and glamorous – I’m glad I got to see it.)


Mini-review – Groove on Down the Road – ZooNation at Southbank Center

August 30, 2013

You’d think after the horror that was the Wizard of Oz musical done at the Southbank center five years ago that I’d be completely against any further adaptations of one of my favorite movies; but drop the word “Zoonation” in the title and there I was trying to figure out how I could afford to go on my newly slimmer budget. Their Into the Hoods was fun and lively and the much longer Some Like It Hip Hop showed they were able to do a more character driven piece that was still hugely entertaining. So: give them a work I really love, and I had high hopes something good would come out of it – even though it was being done by the younger Zoonation performers.

Groove on Down the Road opens in a classroom, where our Dorothy – with long braids – is daydreaming, until her teacher tells her off for turning in a poem instead of her math homework. The teacher then takes on three other students, whom, as we can see from the supertitled animations at the back of the stage – are the basis from which the three companions are to come later (i.e. the blond guy “Leon” is clearly the lion, “T-man” … you get the idea). All four of them seem to be bullied outcasts. Somehow Dorothy is transported to another world, and her toy dog becomes a dancing man with a hat. The companions are assembled (each one getting a great solo dance in as their introduction), the munchkins are met (since there are a lot of kids this is pretty easy), then the journey to Oz begins. Each yellow brick road segment took the dancers out into the front row and aisles of Queen Elizabeth Hall (making me really sorry I had 10 quid back row seats), keeping the energy levels high and broadly distributed.

While the poppy scene was just so so, I loved the fight at the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle, where the flying monkeys got funky! And the bizarre dance sequence of “The Wizard” (being played court by a bunch of green and plaid clad school kids) was hysterically turned in the great unveiling scene, where we get to see a mini-me Wiz behind the curtain. I was howling, and by the end of the night standing up in my seat and clapping along as the kids all danced their way out of the auditorium. The whole thing was, what, 80 minutes straight through no interval? – and just great top to toe, with lots of music that mad _me_ want to dance. I felt so guilty knowing I’d gone to see this instead of Edward the Second next door at the National Theater, or, rather, I felt like I should … but I was just having too damned much fun to care. AWESOME!!!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 29th, 2013. It closes Sunday, September 1st. It is appropriate for all ages provided you like to get your funk on.)

Mini-review – I Wish I Was Lonely – Hannah Jane Walker & Chris Thorpe at the Forest Fringe Festival

August 29, 2013

Of the many offerings of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the ones that most caught my eye were actually taking place as a part of the (free) Forest Fringe Festival, a bit further away from the center of the action in Leith. It seemed to be very carefully curated, not so much a mixed bag as a bouquet of cultivated exotics. My first pick, the excellent Purge, well rewarded my efforts to time my arrival to Edinburgh so as to be able to see it. My second choice was “I Wish I Was Lonely,” which, like “Purge,” had technology at the heart of its being. But rather than being a personal journey, “I Wish I Was Lonely” offered to take us on a group journey exploring our relationship with … cellphones.

I was expecting we might go for a walk, or that the performers would be calling us, but instead we were calling each other, sending texts to each other’s phones, and listening in horrored fascination as the people who got calls during the show were forced to answer them during the show. And then, at last, we were forced to SEPARATE ourselves from our phone … the stress! … while the performers talked about what it meant to be away from the phone (and we all shared what it meant to US). And we played a game of what we in the US call “telephone,” repeating to our neighbors the lines of a poem as they came around the circle to us.

While we sat, jumbled, in this room together, the performers talked to us about their relationship with phones (each of them had a very different approach) as well as their personal relationship. I was, however, not able to focus very well because of the glaring presence of the phone in my hand. Really, I envied not just the people who hadn’t brought their phones, but the man who’d so firmly decided that he was not going to have one. This connectivity, is it a pipeway to the world or a ball and chain? By the end of the piece, I began to feel the phones, and the expectation of constant connectivity, are a hindrance to our existence rather than an enabler. Just look at people walking down the sidewalk in London: it seems have of them are staring at their palms no matter what the weather is. And for all of my tweets about how I’d like to have someone come into the room and bring me some tea, I was left to suffer without. Ah well: if it hadn’t been for the hungover no-shows, I wouldn’t have even made it in.

Text I sent to my phone buddy: “The only time I will call you is if … you will bring me tea and it’s today.”
Response (after the show was well over): “The tea is in the oven but if you’re not home soon it’ll be in the dog.”

This show felt like it didn’t quite get to where it could have gone, but it prompted some interesting thoughts about how tied we are to our tech and whether or not it’s really helping us connect – or separate. I can’t help but feel sad watching my husband sit in the living room, on his phone, seemingly hour after hour with nothing to say to me while he sits there and reads Facebook and plays games. This is a technology that can just as easily enforce loneliness or help end it, at the same time. Me, I’m going to remember to turn the damn thing off on a nice day and just walk down the street, looking at the flowers or the sky.

(This review is for the final performance that took place on Sunday, August 25th, 2013.)

Mini-Review – Slapdash Galaxy: 3D! – BunkPuppets at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

August 26, 2013

With way too much on offer at the Fringe, I was pleased to find one show that stood up and said, “See me!” Yes, the combination of shadow puppets, space pirates, and a 3D finale meant that Slapdash Galaxy was at the top of my list of shows to see at the Fringe.

The performance was done as a one-man effort (with occasional help from the audience’s shadows): we had a sort of mad Gepetto making puppets out of devices placed on his hands, his thumbs making their mouths. He’s built them so their eyes could blink and their eyeballs move: with just two moving parts he was able to create a huge range of emotions.

The story was of two brothers forced to leave their home planet and seek a new home amongst the stars …with their magic fish. (I thought it seemed a bit like the background of Superman …excepting the fish.) You’d think a tiny spaceship on a stick wouldn’t be very convincing, but with the help of a little smoke and the circular screen for the people puppets (like a port hole), I was bought in. The puppeteer mocked his medium (especially when accidents occurred), but the jokes made it all easier to get connected to the story without getting too caught up in any lack of verisimilitude.

While I thought the peak of the action was going to be when the elder brother fought off a tentacled spider (nicely brought to life by an audience member) thanks to GIANT SMOKE RINGS which I really thought were the height of puppetry special effects, in fact, it got even better at the end, when 3D glasses and red and blue black lights turned the shadows into A PIRATE SHIP IS FLYING IN THE AUDIENCE. Which was awesome. And there was a space zoo and a happy ending. Win!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, August 25th, 2013. There is a final show today.)

Mini-review – Purge – Brian Lobel at the Forest Fringe, Edinburgh

August 25, 2013

I’m doing something different this weekend: I’m at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the first time since I moved to England. “What?” you may ask. “How have you not been before?” Well, to be honest, it was a cost thing. Hotel rooms seemed four times the normal cost and they’re not that cheap in the UK under the best of circumstances. And many places that were a little less unaffordable seemed to expect you were going to rent for an entire week. So: really, really expensive prices to watch shows of questionable quality? And it looked to me like the best came down to London anyway. So I sat it out.

But it happened that thanks to Air B&B I’d found a tip on a really cheap place to stay, and thanks to Lyn Gardner I’d heard about the Forest Fringe which is entirely free and had a really interesting slate of shows, many of them hitting a particular area of interest of mine: how new forms of communication (cellphones, social media) are affecting how we live our lives. Thus, it was obvious that one of the shows I had to see was Brian Lobel’s Purge, “a live performance that recounts Brian’s emotionally-disastrous installation in which he, over 25 hours, deleted his Facebook friends via public vote.” I arranged my arrival time in Edinburgh carefully, and VOILA, I was there!

I wasn’t expecting him to be American. And I wasn’t expecting him to be a monologuist (I was reminded of Mike Daisey a bit). But what did meet my expectations is that I got to hear of lots and lots of drama, in a way that allowed for substantial audience participation (which was both simultaneously gratifying and emotional). Lobel has been doing performances for quite a while – this one is part of a series on his experience of dealing with the death of his first boyfriend – and you’d expect his friends to have been somewhat immune to the trauma of having their relationships with him be potential fodder for his work. But no: from the very beginning, alerting people to his upcoming experiment caused people to IMMEDIATELY cut their Facebook ties with him. Waiting for a public judgment on the quality of their relationship with him wasn’t good enough; they wanted to avoid the whole circus.

I can sympathize with people who didn’t like the thought of having their relationship details revealed to a roomful of strangers (a situation made more intense by the fact the presentation, vote, and possible defriending was all taking place via a live video feed); but I expected a bit more sportsmanship, a desire to play, knowing that the reconnection could easily happen after the event was over. But no: in addition to the pre-removers, other people wrote so hostilely of their expectations that it was inevitable that they would be voted “out” – and, sadly, the things they revealed in their angry responses had the effect of permanently severing their ties with him.

Lobel’s experiment touched both on the Big Brother/Apprentice “who’s in/who’s out” gameshow trend but, more tellingly, on the construct of “friends” and “friending” created by using Facebook, and on the passive aggressive culture social media seems to have fostered. What makes a friend? Is it meaningful to have a thousand of them? (We were invited to live un-friend someone during the show; the degree of hostility manifested by the man who volunteered for this was quite surprising to me.) Is someone who is on your Facebook “friends” list or Twitter followed feed someone you’re actually close to? How does it affect you to see so much trivial information about people on a daily basis? How is it that this can seem like community but also be confused with community? As he discussed the complex stories of the people who became a part of this project, I found myself emotionally swept up into it, both the Roman Coliseum drama of thumbs up/thumbs down but also the horrible hurting sadness at how petty people can be when they’re not dealing with each other face to face, with voices and expressions to help soften their messages. And I thought about what it means to construct a community deliberately, and what kind of people you really want to have as part of your life, and the illusions you build up based upon a silly naming convention some Harvard kids thought up years ago that doesn’t really capture relationships.

At an hour in length, this show was a perfect afternoon snack, and the one I engaged with the most out of the eight shows I caught over the weekend. It also gave me a lot to think about afterwards – both about the people he’d made come to life, and about how “social media” has changed how we deal with each other. It also inspired me to do some writing. All that and it was free? Now, there was a BIG win! Thank you Forest Fringe!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, August 24th, 2013. It closed August 25th but may be revived again.)

Mini-review – Pipe Dream – Union Theater

August 24, 2013

It is not without reason that I have some fear of shows which have not been produced (or revived) over a considerable period of time since their debut: even more so shows which have never been done in London. There’s a good reason Ibsen’s Emperor and Gallilean never made a West-end debut; thus my suspicions about Rogers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream, making its London debut 60 years after the fact. But then, you know, it was STILL Rogers and Hammerstein. How bad could it be?

I’m pleased to report that, on the balance, the “Rogers and Hammerstein” outweighed the “but it never made it to
London” side of the equation. When modern musicals struggle to generate even a single decent song, old hands like R & H just pop out one good one after another. It’s the topic, then, and I think the structure that hamper this show. I’m a fan of Steinbeck and of his novels set in Cannery Row, Monterey; I’m also a big marine life enthusiast, so for me, a song about the reproductive habits of octopi and starfish was a dream come true. I am probably not in the majority in this view, however.

The material also struggles with the natural up-beat nature of Rogers and Hammerstein. They’re really not about struggling with poverty or the harsh realities that send women to work as prostitutes; they’re more about boy-meets-girl love stories. Steinbeck focuses on the innate human dignity of his characters; as transformed into the musicals format, I’m afraid they’ve had to become “cute.”

Director Sasha Regan and choreographer Lizzy Gee engage unironically with the material, giving us a great “On the Bus” dance number that unites the wastrel men and the ladies of the night, as well as a nicely executed “me and my reflection” silhouetted tap routine. But the characters stayed superficial, which was, well, not really reflecting its literary origins. Ah well, As a fine musical entertainment performed up close and personal in the Union style, Pipe Dream was still a good night out that repaid the effort it took to pry myself away from the long summer evenings of 2013 to take a trip back to an America that’s long vanished.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, August 17th, 2013. It continues through August 31st.)

Mini-review – A Chorus Line – London Palladium

August 22, 2013

If you’re a fan of musicals, you want to see every one of the greats at least once. Sometimes a mediocre score can really come to life in context in a way that just listening to a recording or even watching a movie may not get across. So I was excited when it was announced that A Chorus Line was coming to London – it was my first chance to see it! But then I saw the prices, which seemed exorbitant for a musical that doesn’t really have any kind of scenery overheads and only runs for two hours. I waited, week after week, for them to come down. Scarlett Strallen! “Dance Ten, Looks Three” done live instead of at the piano bar! Really, really high kicks! Then it announced it was closing in August, and it started to look like I was never going to make it. I finally gave up and broke my £20 barrier and got some £25 tickets off of LastMinute that they advertised as “in the front five rows” – I wasn’t sure why the crowds weren’t coming but I thought I should make a little bit of an effort or face ten more year of just never having seen it.

The setting is “New York, 1970s,” and, in a nutshell, I think this is where the show falls down. The play is about the stories of dancers – why they dance – with (usually) comic numbers that they perform to illustrate their little quirks. But the stories they tell about their lives seem really dated. Puerto Rican identity issues, lots of closeted gay guys … through the lens of 2013, a lot of these characters come off, not just as stereotypes, but as the kind of stereotypes people had of people during the 1970s that we have moved beyond. They really haven’t aged well. And while, for example, “Dance Ten Looks Three” is a snappy number, the bitchy intrologue was completely limp. Given my druthers, I’d strip the show down, rewrite all of the spoken bits, and look to replace maybe a third to a half of the songs with things that represent what the performers of today are like.

Of all of the stories, however, it was that of Cassie (Scarlett Strallen’s role) that just 100% still worked. A star fallen from the good roles and going back just to work; it’s timeless, and her dance to “The Music and the Mirror” was captivating. Zach’s line about how “she couldn’t dance like the rest of them” was just so true; Strallen’s dancing was just gorgeous. Maybe it was just the choreography – it’s designed so carefully throughout the show to demonstrate the skill level of the various characters – but even if she was given the best, well, she was up for it. This was the highlight of my evening – five minutes (time stopped, actually, it could have been three minutes or ten) of pure beauty and motion. Aaaaahhh.

The group scenes are also a treat, and, for a musicals fan, there’s no doubt that this is a fun evening, with lots of good dancing, excellent songs, and white-hot talent on stage. But I can’t help but think the run is not working out the way they hoped – fifth row seats shouldn’t be going for twenty five quid. That said – I do really feel I got my money’s worth; but even more so when I spent 65 to see Book of Mormon from off to the side. But that’s for another post.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 13th, 2013. The final performances will be on August 31st.)

Review – Henry VI (Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York & Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York) – Globe Theater on original battlefields

August 21, 2013

While some people might consider casting elderly American actors as romantic leads the height of novelty for Shakespearean productions, I was far more convinced by the idea of not just seeing three related plays in the same day but ON THE VERY SITES where the events mentioned in the plays took place. Tewkesbury, Towton, Saint Albans, Barnet – these towns are written into the fabric of English history like Gettysburg and Shiloh are for American. Thus the Globe’s “Henvry VI Battlefield performances” caught my eye (and at 45 quid for three plays, they seemed quite affordable). St. Alban’s was close enough to not be too expensive to visit from London. But could I stomach 10 hours of plays in one day? HELL YEAH.

Thus it was, with picnic packed, my husband, housemate and I descended upon the lawn surrounding St. Alban’s church (formerly cathedral, please talk to Henry VIII if you have a problem with this) … only to discover the first thirty feet or so from the stage was ALREADY TAKEN with people in HIGH BACKED CHAIRS. Our location (sitting on a blanket) meant we were nearly fully blocked from seeing the actors, if standing, from below the waist; while I had hopes that the two towers on each side of the stage might get a lot of use, they were almost exclusively occupied during battle scenes. While we were still able to hear 80-90% of the dialogue, this was reduced to about 60% after the sun set, when the noise from the generators started to cancel out the actors’ voices. This was further complicated by an excess of deathbed speeches during The True Tragedy of the Duke of York – as the actors were prone (if dying) or kneeling (if talking to the nearly, or newly, dead), the wall of heads and chairs between their mouths and our ears meant, well, Henry’s “Oh pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!/The red rose and the white are on his face/The fatal colours of our striving houses”speech was lost. And thus, in this review, I am not really able to provide a recap of the three shows and the acting, but I shall do my best to relate the experience of seeing these plays in this environment.

With three plays in one day, I thought I would be wise to get a program, and it was, actually, very helpful, having both family trees (let’s just say Shakespeare apparently took liberties but there are still about three people named Richard to sort out) and plot summaries, not to mention some very helpful background information about the publication of the play, actual history, and other good things. I would have been really lost without it as, in addition to the scene in which everyone is named Bruce* (and then dies), there were a limited selection of actors to work with, even during a single play. I was really only able to focus on Henry VI (the mopey guy in all three plays: Graham Butler), Humphrey (Duke of Gloucester and Henry VI’s protector: Garry Cooper), and the two main women, the ass-kicking Joan of Arc (Beatriz Romilly) and the also ass-kicking Margaret of Anjou (Mary Doherty).

Joan of Arc featured heavily in the first play (and, well, was burned at the stake at the end, so not much chance of coming back later); she was responsible for the ONE AND ONLY instance of sword wielding female Shakespearean character I’ve ever seen, which was great! Now, I know these plays were really working hard to whip up anti-French sentiment (it was about like listening to modern politicians blame immigrants for Britain’s woes), but I could not really find room in my heart to do anything other than love Joan of Arc just as wholeheartedly as I fell for the cowgirl in Toy Story. Not only did she fight AND WIN with her sword, she was an inspiring leader and a killer strategist to boot. So for me, the high point of Harry the Sixth were the scenes with Joan of Arc – though I really just couldn’t buy into for the witchcraft scene at the end, it was so out of character – pure anti-French propaganda.

In summary, play one of the day was fairly action packed with lots of sword fighting and not too many speeches. When it finished, we ate our lunch and then had a fair amount of time to walk around; I went inside the church and saw the actual grave of Humphrey. That was very exciting, really full circle for the historical reality and the iambic fictionalization! I also learned that the reason the building was still standing was that the people of the town had bought it from the state for 400 quid after the dissolution of the monasteries to keep as a town church; thank you for your foresight, St Albanians! (Note: there was plenty of time to go out and get food, which was good as there were no snack or drinking facilities on site, though nearly enough bathrooms.)

Some 60 or so minutes later, it was on to play two. The program warned that The Houses of York and Lancaster (the first written of all of these plays, created early in Shakespeare’s career and apparently only as co-author) consisted of “domestic broils,” and I found this one hard work to track. Aside from Margaret, her (supposed) lover Suffolk (Roger Evans), Henry, and Humphrey, the characters became a blur; Suffolk transitioned into rabble-rouser Jack Cade, there are two Richards, two Clarences, and a second Goucester; somebody named Somerset shows up. What stuck was 1) Good guy Gloucester dead (sad!) 2) bad guy Suffolk dead (no tears) 3) queen getting uppity 4) Henry not in control 5) “kill all the lawyers” (and anyone else who can write) 6) several different people say they are king. Many, many deaths, and the only reason Jack Cade’s was memorable was because it brought to mind Kage Baker’s fabulous first novel, In the Garden of Iden. IT WAS ALL JUST TOO MUCH. And there were no dragons so I wasn’t seeing the similarity between this and Game of Thrones (rumor: original title “Game of Thorns”). Yet, still, king on the run; where was this going to go? Per the family tree, he had a son; yet also it’s clear that his “successor” was an Edward, followed by a Richard! So where did the “two princes in the tower” come in, and what about all of the other people Richard was going to bump off? I’d just have to wait until after supper to find out.

And here the crisis of the day occurred. Not only had we neglected to pack a bottle of wine, but the roast chicken we’d prepared the day before had not made it into the hamper. Fortunately the cafe at the cathedral had stayed open late, so we were able to remedy our failings.

So, full of sausage roll and cheap white wine, we prepared for the end of our day of theater. The True Tragedy of the Duke of York (interestingly after watching the play I don’t actually know what the tragedy was) for me was extra fun because of the role of Queen Margaret. Shakespeare may have have dubbed her a she-wolf, but she was simply a tornado, filling the breach of power created when her husband failed to step up. She was roundly abused (possibly by York?) as being unwomanly, but, in my eyes, she was 100% queen. It was hard for me to see her actions as selfish or cruel; to me, she was fighting for stability and the rule of law. In contrast, Edward is the one who woos one wife while marrying another; no surprise, really, that he’d send his brother to do his dirty work in killing the lawful (if useless) monarch. And this scene, in which Henry upbraids Richard for being twisted in spirit as well as body, was a highlight of the play, not to mention a great setup for the “fourth” play: look at that wonderful final tableau, with uncle Richie cuddling his little baby nephew. Peace in our times, eh? Maybe not yet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, August 11th, 2013. The final battlefield performance of these three plays will take place at 12:30 Sunday, August 24th, in Barnet: expect the show to run until about 10 PM.)

Review – Midsummer Night’s Dream – Tooting Arts Club

August 17, 2013

What a week! I’ve been to see A Chorus Line and the Globe’s all-day Henry VI-athon, but what I want to write about is the Tooting Arts Club’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Theater in the non-ritzy, southern end of zone three is hard to come by, and it was Tara Arts only until Tooting Arts Club came on the scene. Their Barbarians blew me out of the water, and I was excited to see they were doing A Midsummer Night’s Dream this year. I was promised (somewhere!) it would be set in modern Tooting, and I was curious how they would handle it – it’s a very exciting neighborhood but hardly a Grecian glen in the making.

As it turns out, this Midsummer was very traditional in terms of the dialogue, but took wild liberties with the sets and costumes. We were supposedly at Tooting Common (actually a darned shame there is no outdoor Shakespeare festival there!), as indicated by Astroturf, a “Lido” sign, and some helpfully scattered garbage; but, as crammed into the auto repair shop that is the main theater at the Tooting Arts Club, Titania’s bower wound up being a redecorated sink/handwashing area (a later version of the bower is hidden behind a rolling garage door – a nice touch). The costumes were fully outrageous, both clearly done on a budget and yet highly inventive. Both Peaseblossom and Mustardseed had indicative elements strapped on a la codpiece (never seen a sack of frozen peas used that way before!), while the Athenian lovers wore school uniforms.

What was really great about the costume design (aside from the toy electric guitar) was the way the clear cut differences between each of the groups meant we had no problems distinguishing between player, royalty, Athenian, and fairy; in fact, it took me some time before I realized that the whole show was being done with about seven actors in total. This is made a joke at the very end, when King Theseus has to shed his robes in order to join the players; but really, it was all done very well. Hard to believe the same person played both sweaty ol’ Bottom and the noble Egeus!

While I had been expecting more references to modern Tooting life, what I did NOT expect (and appreciated more) was a fully realized directing approach that showed ingenuity, imagination, and a real understanding of what makes a play move along well. This found reached its apogee in the Helena/Hermia fight scene (the one with the insults about Hermia’s height), which had Lysander and Demetrius grappling in real mud. Yes, the chicken dance at the very end of the show was amusing, but seeing Hermia fling the men around as if she was in a martial arts flick broke my funnybone. It was like The Matrix as done by the Three Stooges. I have never in my life laughed so hard while watching Shakespeare – even the Rude Mechanicals (who normally bore me) got the giggles going. (Oh, when Robin Starveling told off Hippolyta, that was SO perfect!)

Overall, while Tooting Arts’ Club’s Midsummer was not what I expected, it was even better than I had hoped, showing not just how flexible Shakespeare can be, but how less can regularly be more. And at £14 a ticket (£9 if you’re a local like me), it’s a screaming deal. Hurray for the summer of Shakespeare! Hurray for the Tooting Arts Club! Hurray for awesome, affordable theater!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 14th, 2013. It continues through September 7th. The theater is accessed via a nearly unnoticeable driveway entrance between two buildings – give yourself extra time to reconnoiter on your way from the Tooting Broadway tube stop.)

Review – Titus Andronicus – Malachite Theater at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch

August 13, 2013

Moving to the top of the Life in the Cheap Seats’ “great deals for great shows” list is Titus Andronicus as presented at St. Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch for the shockingly low price of £13. I was lucky enough to get offered comps for this show – and I say lucky because, well, the quality of shows I’m invited to review varies really widely. I was kind of enthusiastic about going to see Titus, though. Basically, it’s the Roman Sweeney Todd, and if you’re in the mood for some gory and gothsome theater, this revenge tragedy cuts the mustard.

The theater itself enhances the atmosphere nicely – while it’s still very visibly a church, with pews and an organ, it’s all set up with faded flags and dusty plastic coverings that enhance the feeling of an empire that’s on its way out. The director has wisely chosen to keep the set simple, allowing us to focus on the words and the action: after all, if Shakespeare has the actors describing the copse they are in, do we really need to have trees? No. And we have plenty to keep focused on, with executions and murders happening left and right. A lot of them happen off-stage, but on stage, well, we have MORE than enough blood for even the most jaded Grand Guignol to sit up and take notice. In fact, I think a couple of audience members may have got a bit more than they were expecting; I saw a woman looking distinctly green as Lavinia drooled blood from one foot away. The front row seats are great: we took hers after the interval, when she failed to return, full of stunningly cheap tea and slices of cake (not pie).

Titus, Lavinia, and Marcus of Malachite Theatre’s Titus Andronicus – photo credit NICOLAI KORNUM

While I could carp a bit about the occasionally bad sound quality (it’s a church, things echo, words get lost), what struck both me and my companion was the uniformly high acting quality. Tamora (Jo Price) took a while to find her stride (we’re supposed to buy her transitioning from broke captive to vengeful empress in about five minutes time), but Titus (Charles Cromwell) was unfailingly on from start to finish. Also great was the nearly unremittingly evil Aaron: Stephen Boyce took a character that could have come off as cartoonish and made his entire panoply of emotions (including revenge and passion) believable. And throughout the evening, not for a minute did it seem like a single actor did not fully understand the meaning behind their words and respond accordingly. It was easy for the fourth wall to drop and to lose myself in the raw emotions playing out before me – though I held back enough to remind myself it was stage blood, and no actors were harmed in the making of the pie.

In a summer heavy with Shakespeare, Malachite Theatre has succeeded in upstaging The Globe and Propellor by providing a performance that you can really sink your teeth into, at a price that means there’s no excuse not to go. Excellence has rarely been so affordable.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 9th, 2013. It continues through Saturday, August 31st. Running time is about 2:15.)