Archive for September, 2013

Review – The Secret Agent – theatre O at the Young Vic Theater

September 20, 2013

My husband’s obsession with Joseph Conrad has led me to many a theatrical experience I might otherwise have missed. But the thought of a retelling of his short novel The Secret Agent with updates to make it relevant to today’s terrorist obsessed audience was one which had me standing in line at the Young Vic, nervously hoping for a return ticket to a mid-week matinee.

Well! A good choice this was, except for the giggling teenagers that made up a large percentage of the audience (and did their best to wreck a tragic scene late in the play), with a snappy 1:25 interval-free running time that should make it popular amongst after-work theater goers despite its 7:45 start time. Theater O performed it in an expressionistic style that reminded me of The Cabinet of Dr Cagliari – all angular lines, hyperexpressivity, and madness. The tiny cast moved effortlessly between granny and anarchist, handicapped child and spymaster (although I thought Carolina Valdes, as Winne Verloc, was too heavily accented to be a believable ignorant housewife). The stage was very stripped down, but hey, there was always the audience there to fill out any missing roles (and I was easily bribed by the promise of a malted milk biscuit).

While The Secret Agent seems to be a story about late Victorian paranoia, anarchists, and the mysterious workings of governments told in almost a “everyday guy caught in events out of his control” style, in fact, Theater O make it clear that it’s still 100% relevant to today. We may not walk around in bowler hats and take horse drawn carriages to the almshouses, but we do still live in a world where governments recognize the power of fear to keep the people under control. Does “These cameras are here for your safety and security” ring a bell? And yet, do you really think cameras keep people from attacking you or stealing your wallet? Do videos made in a place where property crime is the only thing that would likely happen do anything to make YOU secure? Or has the language of “protection” become a way for everyone to be made docile?

I found this snappy show quite enjoyable and appreciated the contrast between the unreality of the style and the rather depressing banality of the topic. Sure, the specifics (there are two deaths) are particular to the story … but the universalities are what count. And someone tell the sixth formers to shut up during the death scene. Where are the instruments of the security state when you need them, eh?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 18th, 2013. It continues through September 21st.)

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Reviews – One on One Forest Fringe (Exposure and Motor Vehicle Sundown) – Jo Bannon and Andy Field at Drill Hall, Edinburgh

September 19, 2013

One of the special treats of the Forest Fringe Festival was the opportunity to take part in some one on one performances. I missed out on Rosanna Cade’s Walking:Holding, but for the final Saturday and Sunday I was able to book a slot both to Jo Bannon’s Exposure and Andy Field’s Motor Vehicle Sundown (which was either a two person experience or a zero person experience depending on how you look at it). While the Fringe Festival is now long past, I’d like to document these two performances as they seem like the kind of small precious things that might be completely forgotten by the tides of time while Bremmer Duthie’s 33 (A Kabarett), which made me want to tear my eyes out, somehow gets reviews all over the place when I can only hope to some day forget it. (I’ll consider that my review of the show and hopefully finally the anger will die.)

Registering for these was a bit odd because I couldn’t figure out how to do it online; still, at about 10 minutes per slot, there were many opportunities to see Jo Bannon perform – as we were taking an hour between shows for a tea and scone break (Drill Hall is great for that), both I and Worthy Opponent were able to see it. The description was “Exposure is the beginning of an investigation into how we look, how we are looked at and if we can ever really be seen,” so I thought there was going to be a discussion of identity, how people make assumptions about you based on your appearance, maybe something where each of us were talking about our experiences.

But with a one on one performance, you can pretty much expect to leave your expectations behind, and this was decidedly the case for this tightly choreographed, jewelbox experience. I was led into a pitch black room where I was sat at a table, and a flashlight pointed at two earbuds which I put on. Then I listened to a series of recollections and meditations about Bannon’s experience of living as herself. I was unable to see her myself initially, except for a brief flash of light shone across her eye – providing me a glimpse of rather a lot of pink and tiny clouds of blue. I was reminded of a rabbit’s eye rather than a person – correctly enough as it turned out, as (as shown in a slide show) Bannon is albino. This has led to a very differently experienced life than I’ve had, and her narration of it, and how it’s affected her, was quite interesting. At the end, she paused and we looked at each other, fully lit, for a minute or so. She was all dressed in white, which enhanced her ivory hair and delicate features – it was like looking at a ghost in a movie. But I wonder – what was it like for her looking at me? What was her experience? That, however, wasn’t what Exposure was about, but I enjoyed it anyway.

The second “one on one” show I went to did actually involve two people but had no actors – rather, it was a shared experience with one other audience member in which we both put on headphones and “went for a ride” in a car situated in the Drill Hall foyer. (I hadn’t read about it beforehand – I just saw the opportunity and went for it.) Motor Vehicle Sundown had three different phases – one in which we sat in the back, one in which we sat one in the drivers seat front and one in the rear, and a third in which, er, an apocalypse happens (and we sat in the front). We occasionally received instructions, i.e. to get in the car, to look at each other, but mostly we listened to a monologue of the experience of driving, of watching a drive-in movie (with a sound track – I think it was a slasher flick), of watching the world end.

Objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear

Passenger view, Motor Vehicle Sundown, Forest Fringe Festival 2013


While I found this experience very enjoyable, I kind of felt like it should have gone a little further. With two different headphones, we could easily have been having a very different experience from each other, much in the same way two people can read the same book and get different things out of it – but this could have been pushed much further. One of the people could have been a murderer, or could have been angry at the person they were driving with, and the emotional interactions between the two people could have been used as part of the artistic experience. This element was completely neglected, which is a bit of a shame – it felt so edgy having someone else there, and I thought for sure this was going to play a part in the goings-on other than just the little bit of eye contact we made.

Ah well. Perhaps that play is the one I should design. As this is my last review for the Edinburgh Fringe and my last review of the Forest Fringe, I’d like to sum up by saying what a great venue this was and how very much the Forest Fringe added to my overall Edinburgh experience. I’m sure not everything they did was great, but I saw four things there that were all recommendable and thought provoking, while of the four things I saw in the regular festival, two were utter turkeys. On top of that, it filled me with enthusiasm to create art myself. When I come back – and I am hoping to – I’m going to make even more of an effort to enjoy what’s going on at this well curated performing art event. Thanks to everyone involved for making it so great!

(This review is for two performance/experiences that took place on Sunday, August 25th, 2013, the final day of the Forest Fringe Festival.)

Review – On a Clear Day You Can See Forever – Union Theater

September 13, 2013

I’m glad, in retrospect, that I knew nothing about On a Clear Day You Can See Forever before I headed to the Union Theater on Wednesday – I just hoped that with lyrics by Lerner and production values by Sasha Regan that I’d be having another lovely evening of golden/silver age musicals in the exquisite confines of my favorite tiny theater in London. And, well, so it was: but if I’d looked up the story beforehand, I might have been scared off! Whether you say it’s about psychoanalysis or about ESP or about past lives … well, any one of these things would have had me reconsidering my plans. A play where someone spends a lot of time with a shrink? Shoot me. A show about reincarnation? Couldn’t live through it.

But thanks, I think, to the utterly charming and completely non-ironic performance of Vicki Lee Taylor (as Daisy Gamble), rather that grumbling about how outrageous, silly, or (worst of all) boring this show was, I found myself relaxing into an utterly lovely and pleasant evening about truly surprising topics – absolutely original in all of the musical theater I had seen. Daisy Gamble is at a teaching psychologist’s office during a lesson and inadvertently is hypnotized. While recovering from her mishap, she winds up demonstrating other skills she has to Dr Bruckner (Nadeem Crowe) – such as an ability to read minds and, as demonstrated by the utterly gorgeous song, “Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here,” a talent at making plants grow. I had been sitting there feeling a bit confused by the hip 60s setting (miniskirts galore) and the way the band (sitting behind me) were kind of drowning out some of the lyrics and dialogue, but once Taylor started singing, I was sunk. (It helped a little bit that she reminded me of Umbrellas of Cherbourg-era Catherine Deneuve.) It was like discovering you were on a journey to an unknown destination with a driver whose tastes you had utter faith in. I was very excited to see where Burton Lane and Mr. Lerner were going to take us.

Although the middle of this show is a very bizarre trip to woo woo land, I had no difficulty in swallowing it hook, line and sinker: as a bonus, Daisy actually has a very neat personal evolution that takes her from a difficult to believe, two dimensional character to a much better rounded person by the end of the show – you really do wind up rooting for her. And Dr Bruckner, well, he’s a bit of an odd duck, but his passion for understanding the mysteries he’s confronted with – and his willingness to accept Daisy without trying to put her in an easily-labeled box – makes him sympathetic as well. Really, On A Clear Day is such a curious thing, but it’s so lovely to watch: and sitting there at the end, five feet away from Taylor as she (and the rest of the talented cast) belted their hearts out – well, it was that kind of Union Theater magic that keeps me coming back show after show. In this case, it might have me coming back just a little bit sooner, because Taylor’s voice was just too good to be believed – playing to a house of, what, forty or fifty people, unmiked – what a treat!

(This review was for a performance that took place on Wednesday, September 11, 2013. It continues through Saturday, September 28th.)

Review – Midsummer Night’s Dream – Michael Grandage Company at Noel Coward Theater

September 12, 2013

After a Fram-tastic night at the Old Vic’s Much Ado, I have to say I was feeling a little bit nervous about a second night of Shakespeare in a row. To make it worse, I’d just seen an outstanding Midsummer at the Tooting Arts Club – and I’ve been finding the Michael Grandage Company’s season generally pretty weak. So: their latest is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Should I go? Well, it is being done with the most excellent Sheridan Smith, and it was only ten quid for the seats I bought back in, oh, September or something last year. (FYI: Royal Circle H14 – H17, simply an outstanding view, wish I had booked for the whole season in those seats!)

And … hey, it was good! The set was lovely and fairly simple, sliding glass door/window things kind of like a ruined great house, with people in 30s-ish garb … and then suddenly the house flies away and we’re in a room with a big hole bombed out of the wall and a gigantic moon (three stories, I think!) looming over the back … the fairy wood in which most of the play would take place. The front still looked like an abandoned manor, with a spiral staircase going upstairs (to Titania’s bower) and a few chairs scattered about. It was a model of simplicity.

The acting, meanwhile, was basically what the show calls for – a dignified Hippolyta (Sheridan Smith) and Theseus, buffoonish “rude mechanicals,” silly young lovers. The fairies were done as hippies, complete with pot smoking and a sheet of acid for the “love flower;” Smith made a fetching, Janis Joplin-styled Titania, while her Oberon, with his long coat and bare chest, was six different shades of sexy. The very tall (next to Smith) David Walliams plays Bottom, and while physically he was very good for the character, I find he was a bit too much of a ham for my taste (although if a lot of the audience were actually there to see him they probably wouldn’t complain).

The show was done quite well, but in the end, I found the scenes with the lovers not as funny as they had been with the Tooting Arts Club, and I was ready to leave before Pyramus and Thisbe had finished – it’s meant to be bad, but even knowing this it wore out its welcome. Still, for ten pounds it was very enjoyable not to mention positively refreshing after the previous night’s fiasco.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 10th, 2013.)

Review – Much Ado About Nothing – Old Vic Theater

September 10, 2013

“It just doesn’t get much worse than this.” – elderly audience member, Monday night.

Rarely has a title for a Shakespearean show proven so prophetic. With Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones as the newly geriatric Beatrice and Benedict, it promised so much, especially given their long-standing stage relationship (in Driving Miss Daisy). I figured, hey, they’re awesome, they’re great together, they can make this work! And director Rylance decided to address the racial component of this romance head on, turning Benedict and his fellow soldiers into Tuskeegee Airmen seemingly on visit to an English country manor during World War II. You can’t imagine how proud I felt to see this moment in my country’s history coming to life on stage, with a plethora of American acting talent to make it all feel even more happy-making for me.

That was probably the last moment of pleasure for me during this show. Do American actors get really different training from British actors? I puzzled over this as I listened to Claudio make his way woodenly through his lines. I understand that most of the “soldiers” were speaking with Southern accents, but did Shakespeare really need to sound so bad? Given how well Don Pedro did, I’m sure it wasn’t the case. On the other hand, there was bad guy Don John. He had the gravitas and speaking voice of Snidely Whiplash. I couldn’t help but think of Stephen Boyce’s Aaron from Malachite’s Titus Andronicus: now THAT was a villain. Why wasn’t HE in this play?

And then, well, there was Redgrave and Jones. Um, guys, I know you’re famous and stuff, but, seriously, LEARN YOUR LINES. Jones flubbed enough that I thought the person sitting in the stage left box might have been a prompter; Redgrave was smoother in her speaking but, still, it sounded like she was in a dress rehearsal rather than second preview. I can only assume that they were both so busy they tried to cram the whole thing in their heads with two days’ notice, because, you know, HOLLYWOOD.

Finally: the set. Given that it was the EDGES of a box on a bare stage, I couldn’t help but wonder if the entire budget was spent on the big name cast (both of them). I wouldn’t normally have been too bothered by this, but the whole thing just came off so badly that I felt I had been sold a false bill of goods. You can’t just parade two actors around on a bare set and call it Shakespeare, especially not at the prices they’re charging to see these two.

There’s some hope that in a month’s time this show might settle in, but I’m deeply resentful they didn’t make a bit more of an attempt to practice the show before our paid attendance. It was just lazy and bad. I won’t be able to afford to come back, but I don’t really care: I walked out at the interval (with many others) and was completely thrilled to finish my night reading a wonderful novel by John le Carre. Now THAT was a good way to spend my evening!

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, September 9th, 2013. It continues through November 30th, by which time it might have become less of a turkey and more of a, say, goose.)

Review – The Last Yankee – The Print Room

September 9, 2013

You wouldn’t think a 75 minute play could really be as intense as The Print Room’s production of The Last Yankee was, but, wow, what a roller coaster ride this was. Firmly in the continuum of plays about mental illness stretching from Long Day’s Journey into Night right up to last year’s The Effect, The Last Yankee had nearly no sense of datedness to it thirty years later. Mental illness is still a problem, and people still don’t know how to deal with it; the people who have it struggle, while their families frequently have to deal with shame as well as the difficulties of managing the situation.

This play is set in a mental institution in a New England town. Two men, Mr Frick (Andy de la Tour) and Mr Hamilton (Paul Hickey), meet in the lobby, where they’re both waiting to see their wives, who are patients. Frick is an older go-getter, owner of a successful hardware store/lumber yard and possibly a car dealership or two; he and his wife have no children. Hamilton is a 40s-ish father of seven who works as a carpenter and is learning to play the banjo. Frick tries to make small talk with Hamilton, but his obsession with money and status grate on the younger man; Hamilton finally blows up at Frick, saying, “This is why people are mentally ill in this country!” (or something of the sort). He then backs off and apologizes, and the scene ends uncomfortably.

This scene was utterly fascinating for me to watch with a British audience. The obsession with class here has been a constant mystery to me, but here were two American(s) (characters) discussing it in the American way: the focus on clothing, occupation, and parentage seemed so familiar, while the fluidity with which one casts off one’s “birth” caste and moves into another was completely foreign in my new country’s experience. I think people were fascinated by the clues Americans process to see how to “slot” one in to their class, but I was also completely willing to accept that Hamilton really didn’t give a rat’s patootie about what his dad did for a living and was utterly happy working as a carpenter – and with no sense of having “stepped down.” It’s not an American way to feel. In fact, it was the rich man who wanted to see him as “one of my sort” who was the crass and inappropriate one – but to be honest, I think he read that way to everyone.

Hamilton’s speech, though, to me seemed like a Shavian soap box moment on Miller’s part. Class and an obsession with money is what makes people mentally ill? It was a bit hard to swallow – impossible, actually. And Miller took a much more nuanced approach to the causes, effects and impacts of mental illness in the rest of the play, making this bit of posturing seem both out of place and fortunately forgettable as a blip in an otherwise excellent play. Miller will be Miller, standing up for the nobility of the common man … you just have to let it pass. My engagement in this scene was not helped by the fact that de la Tour’s acting was a bit heavy – aimed more for the second balcony rather than the extremely intimate print room. His character wants to be the center of attention, sure, but he was almost vibrating to my eyes and ears.

The second half of the play takes place inside of the women’s ward of the institution, where a woman I assumed to be Mrs Hamilton (Patricia – Matilda Ziegler) can be heard playing ping pong in the rec room with another patient (at least I think they were playing together). Patricia comes into the room with her friend, Karen (Kika Markham), and it quickly becomes clear they are on very different stages of their recovery. Patricia seems a bit manic and a little paranoid, but she’s able to consistently talk in full sentences. She reveals to us that she’s stopped taking her meds, which immediately made me wonder if she was going to have a breakdown during this scene – which would have immediately cut short the chances of her coming home, something her husband clearly wants – if she’s well.

Karen, meanwhile, is having trouble forming sentences and jumps from one thought to the next, frequently leaving things hanging in the air, clearly struggling to get by. Patricia quite matter-of-factly says to Karen that her medications are probably making it hard for her to think, providing Karen with genuine compassion. It’s so odd to think that these women would have bonded while they were in, especially given that Karen’s condition is so severe that you might expect “normal” people to want to stay away from her. In fact, it’s actually rather shocking to think that both of these women are in for what is merely called “depression.” It turns out that Karen is actually Mrs Frick, who’s only there for the first time as opposed to Patricia’s third; what has gone wrong with her, you have to ask: she’s so much more broken than just “she likes to sleep all of the time and can’t go out of the house to do the shopping,” as her husband described her.

Sometime during the scene with Karen and Patricia I started to lose the sense of being in a theater and began to feel like I was actually watching real people and began to get very emotionally caught up in what was going on. Markham’s depiction of a very unwell woman was frighteningly believable, as were the petty, ridiculous fights that Hamilton and Patricia get into later in the scene. But the end, where Karen attempts to show her husband how good she’s become at dancing, just about broke me: Frick’s look of disgust at what he clearly considers his now-freakish wife had me struggling not to cry. Thank God Patricia – accused by her husband of being negative and materialistic – came to her friend’s rescue – along with her “useless” husband and his “stupid” banjo. Both of them accompany Karen through the rest of her dance routine when Frick turns his back on her, while Patricia also cues Frick on how to behave like some semblance of a decent, supportive human being – which Karen clearly, clearly needs to believe he is. And somehow, in doing this, Patricia and her husband find there sense of trust in each other. But I felt gutted for Karen. Hamilton – descendent of Alexander Hamilton – may be the last Yankee, but there’s no shortage of people like Frick who think that a person who isn’t producing maximum value – whether a person who choses carpentry over law or a wife who’s too afraid to go out and do the shopping – have lost their value and should be tossed on the scrap heap.

Miller’s play seems to me an indictment both of the overmedicalization of depression but also of the underlying pressures that cause so many women to experience bad mental health in middle age. I left feeling gutted, forced to remind myself that I was just watching actors and Markham was doing just fine, probably smoking a cigarette and having a laugh after the show. But it felt real and it hurt – a sign, I think, that Arthur Miller was fully in control of his writing during this play.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 7th, 2013. It continues through October 5th.)

Mini-review – Edward II – National Theater

September 5, 2013

Given that Edward II is a major production by the National, you may wonder why it’s only getting mini-review status from me. I’ll summarize it quickly:

VIDEO PROJECTIONS.

Yes, many of the most emotionally fraught scenes of Edward II are marred, not just by having large, distracting video projections on both sides of the stage, but by actually having the actors perform WHERE YOU CAN’T SEE THEM, in a little room in the middle of the stage where “secret things” happen. This was maybe acceptable for the scene where Edward (John Heffernan), Gaveston (Kyle Soller), and Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) were having some kind of a party; but under no circumstances to I expect to have to watch a scene take place ON GIANT TV SCREENS when the actors are RIGHT THERE ON STAGE. I was especially wanting to tear my hair out during the scene where Edward is captured at a monastery. It’s thoughtful, sad, painful: and yet it was performed for the camera rather than for me, sitting right there in the third row (£12, a great price!). Seriously, I do NOT come to the theater to watch TV, or to watch actors talking to a camera. There’s a whole PROGRAM of events for people who like that kind of stuff, it’s called the NT Live, but I was actually WATCHING THE NT IN THE FREAKING THEATER AND I EXPECTED TO BE WATCHING ACTORS AND NOT A TV SCREEN.

So have we established that I had some serious problems with this play? I think so. Yet I stayed after the interval when 15% of the audience walked out. I can’t say why they left – maybe boys kissing is a problem for them, maybe the weather was just to gorgeous to be ignored – but I stayed because this was, while not emotionally engaging, still the best Marlowe I had ever seen. I was also freshly engaged in Edward’s story after having just been to Dunstanbugh Castle (it was built by the Earl of Lancaster, who captured Edward’s favorite, Gaveston – and it stands in ruins! What happened?) and very much on a bit of a history kick after seeing the Globe’s production of the Henry VI plays. So I wanted to know the story of Edward II, even if told through Marlowe’s eyes.

Oddly, in the end it was the women who held my attention – Kent, Edward’s sibling (Kirsty Bushell, cross-cast as his sister, with a lovely voice and a role I was willing to believe was historically female); Isabella, his queen (Vanessa Kirkby, regal, gorgeous, and the one person who managed to tug my heartstrings as she was sent to the Tower by her son); and the (also cross-cast) Pembroke (Penny Layden, the only one of the barons who actually seemed to care for Edward). I couldn’t really connect to any of the men, but watching Isabella, who loves Edward, make decisions that seemed Machiavellian but really were just based on ensuring the best chances for her son to, not just be king, but live … it was really very, very hard, and utterly believable. The men, well, they were busy acting for the cameras. It was still a well written play excellently acted, but I found it didn’t move me.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on September 5th, 2013. It is in performance until October 26th.)

Review – Agamemnon – The Bunker at Southwark Playhouse

September 5, 2013

Due to the crush of bodies waiting to see Titanic, I failed to make it into the first half of the Southwark Playhouse’s production of “The Bunker” (Morgana and Agamemnon (a two-play bill), so this review is only for Agamemnon.

The play is set in a WWI (trenches) bunker, a small building built within the theater; the roof is low overhead, and we sit on the wooden benches that line the four walls. There’s an exit to the trenches kitty-corner from the door we enter by (which is also used as an entrance by the actors, thus my inability to slip in), and a small table in the middle of the room. I thought it felt convincingly like a buried room, an experience aided by the speakers that made the booms of bombs vibrate through the structure.

The play is meant to parallel the story of Agamemnon (whose name I forget in favor of the daughter he murdered, Iphigenia), who, depending on which story you follow, is murdered by his wife and/or her boyfriend when he returns from the Trojan war. What we get is a young, injured officer, trapped and bleeding his life out underground while he hallucinates visits from his wife and (seemingly) relives choice memories. To me, the play had little of the feeling of Ye Olde Classic Greek Tragedy about it – instead, it was a bit like Incident at Owl Creek Bridge, with all of the sadness and terror of trench warfare – the feeling of young lives wasted, of a society that was about to change forever, of the generation of widows to come – rolling around the room like another character. The backstory, of the officer’s romance with his wife, of her sadness at him leaving for the war, of many unsent letters – to me it didn’t snap into the mold it was named to fill, but rather went on to form its own story of disappointment and lost hopes, alcoholism and loneliness. When he says his wife has gone funny, to be honest, I could not see a sensible reason for it within the story as presented; only with the Agamemnon overlay did it make sense that she’d want to kill him. But I couldn’t really buy it as anything other than some kind of strange hallucination brought on by pain and guilt – and even in that context it didn’t really work.

However, with the very strong performances by all of the cast members, this little logical gap wasn’t enough to put me off. I really enjoyed my EXTREMEMLY intense time in the bunker, and will probably be sneaking back to the Southwark Playhouse to see about catching the first play of the set.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, August 31st, 2013. It continues through September 21st.)