Archive for November, 2013

Review – Jude Law’s Henry V – Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre

November 27, 2013

For fans of the long winter’s nap, I give to you the final show in Michael Grandage’s first London season, the “Jude Law Henry the Fifth,” just in time for Christmas. We’ve had a surfeit of Henrys in the last few years, but I suppose for someone who’s feeling a little inadequate about their standing in the public affections or their hairline, it must be an irresistible role. And for Grandage, we have another coup: a popular and populist play (hitting many of the old English jingoes) staffed by a movie actor not only well known but of proven mettle (he did hold down Hamlet not so long ago and thus nicely pips James Earl Jones’s Much Ado). So we’re guaranteed another series of sell-out houses and thus very likely another season of Michael Grandage produced plays, about which more presently.

But first, back to the play. Admittedly sitting in the back half of the stalls, underneath the oppressive ceiling, with the whole set looking a bit like panoramic television and my knees tucked to the side to avoid hitting the seats in front of me, I wasn’t really at my best for physically enjoying this play. But as we went through one war preparation after another and the tedious Hotspur scenes, I couldn’t help but feeling something was missing. Were the actors flat? They certainly knew their lines well enough. Was there too much play in total? It was cut down to finish up at about 10 PM, so … just what was it really that made me want to punch the air and say “Yes!” when the Dauphin said, “What a long night this is!” There was just no spark, no energy, and that’s fatal to this play and dishonest to the script. I’ve seen it done in a bunker space where the fear of war had me feeling edgy and nervous, and as a sporting match that had me cheering and laughing, but this version, dry and nerveless, has no reason to exist other than putting butts in seats. It was especially telling that of the three, count them, three women I brought with me, all of whom were excited about seeing Jude Law on stage, two of them left at the interval (both had nodded off) and the third only stayed when bribed with ice cream.

The positive side of this is that the tickets were still only 10 quid each so nobody felt like their money was wasted. But I have to have a word now with Mr Grandage about his overall season.

Dear Michael,
Of the five shows (I saw them all, I stayed all the way through the lot), only one of them was actually worth seeing: Cripple of Inishmaan. I am angry at the amount of effort and energy that has been put forth in delivering bland works to audiences in whom you appear to have little trust. Sure, a celebrity cast Shakespeare is a profit turner, but we had two of those, and the one original play done as a part of this season came off as a painful vanity project driven more by the need to showcase two very brilliant stars rather than to create a good work of theater.

I don’t regret the fifty quid I spent to get my season’s worth of tickets, and I thank you, Mr Grandage, for your effort to make theater affordable to the average Londoner. But next year, you should do MORE new works, fresher plays, and less boring old warhorses. Brilliant actors are wasted on tripe. Next year, I say seven shows: two modern, two new, one war horse, and two mini-seasons (two or three weeks each) for two really new shows that would benefit from a higher profile – things you’d normally see at the Royal Court, like Constellations and The River. We’ve got the most intelligent, best educated theater audience in the world here in London, and we deserve better. Michael Grandage, I want you to step up to the plate, step away from the trough, and really make your next year’s season the golden star it should have been in the West End’s night sky. There is no excuse for the flabby decisions you made this year.

All the best, Webcowgirl.

(This review is for for a performance that took place on Tuesday November 26, 2013.)

Review – We Will Rock You – Dominion Theater

November 25, 2013

What do you do when the music of a band you love is being used to structure a jukebox musical? Worse, what do you do when everyone you’ve ever talked to said it was a bad, bad show? That is the quandary I’ve faced for many a year with We Will Rock You, and the choice I’ve made is just to skip it. That is, until a friend had a spare ticket to the Halloween matinee on a day I had nothing else going on. Hey, what better excuse to dress up like a pirate and listen to music by one of my favorite bands ever played live on the big speakers? If it really sucked, I could just leave, or get a bigger drink at the interval.

I actually didn’t know much about the plot other than that it was set in some kind of dystopian future (aren’t they all!) that provided an excuse to use “Radio Gaga” and have a black woman in a fright wig play the “Killer Queen.” I’m going to detour from actually capturing the plot (such as it is) to muse on where this show missed out. In this future world, all music is provided to people by channels controlled by the government (the “Radio Gaga”), a future we could easily slip into as record labels get more aggressive about controlling the distribution of music and copyright laws become a club to punish “the little guy” rather than a tool to help an artist benefit from his or her work. So a world in which people have to covertly act to make/share music that’s not approved by The Powers That Be … that’s a powerful story. But somehow this is whittled down to a world in which people can’t create music because there are no more musical instruments. Hello, singing? It seems to have been entirely forgotten as an option.

And the Killer Queen. Any science fiction fan is familiar with the work of William S Gibson, who way back in Idoru posited a world in which online personalities could become “real.” This is the origin of the Killer Queen character, but do her interesting origins make for anything other than a good excuse for her quislings to clean her apartment in uniform fake spandex maids’ costumes while she threatens them with a whip? Sadly, no.

Instead, we’re given a mentally underpowered “hero” (rather like Neo in The Matrix) who randomly spouts out lyrics from old songs while trying to figure out how he can find the last ever electric guitar. He does this aided by a girl who starts out looking like a genuine Goth In High School, proudly refusing to wear the bright colors and body con clothes favored by her peers … but once they meet “The Underground,” she completely loses her resistance to peer pressure and becomes liberated enough to dress like a tart, only in spikes and leather instead of florescent spandex. Sigh. At least she’s good at using computers.

The whole thing ultimately seemed to me like an excuse to make puns and plot twists so as to pull in as many references to Queen Songs as possible – of course they have to take a bicycle to get to Wembley Stadium – it really just made me want to cringe. I started out really excited by the nice robot-y science fiction zentai-ness of the early scenes, but it just went downhill and refused to stop long after I’d lost my interest in what was going on. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy myself for at least half an hour, but this show needs a good twenty minutes cut out and a serious rethink of the set design. It was all so sadly dated, and performed by people who were adequate but not one of them a super-singing star. Ah well. It did prompt me to put some Queen on my phone at long last, and I did, er, get my money’s worth, and nobody cared that I was dressed like a pirate, in part, I think, because when I sang along, I was on key, unlike the seven drunk people three rows behind me who made the first act a complete hassle to sit through.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on October 31st, 2013. It’s booking into forever.)

Review – Once Upon a Christmas – Look Left Look Right at various locations in Covent Garden

November 23, 2013

“OH another Christmas show!” you might mumble, or “OH another promenade!” But for me, these are words of good cheer, and combined with some positive words about theater company Look Left Look Right from Ought To Be Clowns, I was quite enthused about checking out Once Upon a Christmas. Upon registering on their website (many small slots; note this show is to be done as a pair, as you are both “detecting”), I was given an address very near Covent Garden and told to arrive a few minutes early to check in.

And after this … well, it’s hard to talk about without spoiling the experience, but I’ll try: basically, you and your companion are going to walk around Covent Garden, trying to solve a mystery. The environment is very British Christmas – there are elves but no Santa Claus, and a basic knowledge of panto is pretty key to getting what is going on (especially with the bearded men wearing pink bras and needing help getting dressed for “the ball”), but the mystery itself doesn’t require too much brain to figure out (so don’t worry that you might not be able to do it if you’re not clever). It’s fun, though, to see how what you’ve done and said along the way reappears in unexpected ways, especially in the grand finale.

While I’m not one to single out performers, I have to credit the real star of this show: Covent Garden. The opportunity to see some hidden spaces was really a treat for me, and I really enjoyed being in very familiar ones but experiencing them in very different ways. However, I found the ticket price a bit off-putting for what was delivered, even with the number of performers involved and the clear effort from numerous people backstage required to keep it all moving forward. I was mollified somewhat at the end, where there is a champagne and wine reception – not just for the night I went but for every night. An hour doing a sort of scavenger hunt around one of my favorite London locales, with an additional twenty or so minutes to have a drink and chat – now, that is my idea of a fine way to spend a holiday evening.

(This review is for a performance that took place Thursday, November 21st, 2013. It continues through December 15th.)

Review – All Male H.M.S. Pinafore – Union Theater

November 10, 2013

It’s hard for me not to think of Gilbert and Sullivan and not immediately cringe. Their operettas choke on their own treacle – always a happy ending, inoffensive, prudish. No wonder am dram societies love them.

This received knowledge has been turned on its head by Sasha Regan’s witty all-male stagings. Starting with Pirates of Penzance in 2007, she’s pared away the accumulations of decades to reveal the tuneful songs, pointed jokes, and confused relations (between sexes and classes) that have, apparently, always been there. And she’s made them beautiful to watch … and sexy.

Gilbert and Sullivan sexy? Oh yes, and especially the Union’s H.M.S. Pinafore. The extreme manliness of a ship full of sailors – tussling in their bunks, working out in their smalls, stuffed four by four into the tiny thrust stage – was, um, disturbing, but in a good way. For me. A WWII aircraft carrier bunk room provides the trope for the production – they’re on ship, they’re bored, they’re going to play a pipe, dance a bit, and sing to each other. Watching them horse around during the overture helped pull me out of the present and into the show. The handling of the prologue is one of the cleverest elements of the Union’s G & S productions: by making the performers a group of friends doing something for themselves (for example, in Iolanthe, they were kids at a boarding school), the audience is provided a context for both why the cast is male and why they might suddenly decide to do a show together. Of course they’re doing Gilbert and Sullivan, everyone knows their music! It makes the casting feel completely sensible and not gimmicky, neither “being done to make a point” nor “a marketing ploy.” The show flows completely naturally from its beginning. It’s not a “gay” Pinafore: it’s just Pinafore, but the audience must now see it with modern eyes, without bustles and wigs in the way. And on such a small stage, the words and music are inescapable, leading to the shocking discovery that, actually, it’s damned funny. Who would have known?

The plot of Pinafore is fairly simple: a young sailor (Ralph – Tom Senior) is in love with his captain’s daughter (Josephine – Bex Roberts), who has been promised to “Sir Joseph,” the First Lord of the Admiralty (David McKechnie). There has to be a happy ending, but how will they get there? Meanwhile: who is Buttercup (Ciaran O’Driscoll), the “bum boat” woman,” and just how evil is hunchback Dick Deadeye (Lee Van Geleen)? The plot is moved ahead by songs that seem impossible to accept without strong doses of irony: “We Sail the Ocean Blue,” “A British Tar:” they seem ridiculous! But then, it seems more likely that they should be taken tongue in cheek when played against the captain’s “My Gallant Crew, Good Morning” (in which he reveals that he’s not very brave at all) and Sir Joseph’s “When I Was a Lad” (a complete satire of how to get ahead in the government – or, perhaps, the rude reality, be friends with the powerful, then as now!). Choreographer Lizzy Gee adds lots of fun to it all, putting the sailors to work doing semaphore-style dance moves and inserting an entire Olympic program that manages to mock Chariots of Fire as well as Darwin’s Ascent of Man. It’s all just heaps of fun and as a bonus, well, yummy sailors ahoy!

One of the biggest struggles for this series has been the difficulty of finding strong male counter-tenors in the ranks of the young actors that tend to take these parts; this leads to problems in volume, especially in mixed gender duets, when the female characters are overwhelmed by the stronger voices of the males (a problem for “Refrain, Audacious Tar”). However, Regan has a real winner in Ciaran O’Driscoll, who not only is a convincing, lovesick middle-aged woman, but who has a strong and warm voice perfectly suited to his role. Bex Roberts’ isn’t able to hold up against Tom Senior’s when they duet, but Roberts’ tone is sweet and his singing quite on, if soft.

Overall this show was ebullient, and I spent nearly the entire evening grinning from ear to ear. I’ve already booked to see it again at the end of the month, but I wish I could see it every week all winter long – now that would be the cure for the cold weather blues.

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(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, November 1st, 2013. It continues through November 30th.)

Review – Around the World – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells (then to Mint Theater New York)

November 2, 2013

What? You say Orson Welles and Cole Porter wrote a musical together? How is it we have never heard of it! Well, per the folks that put on Lost Musicals, the original production was so expensive – with a cast of seventy, movies, and a nicely realized circus midway through – that it only made it for seventy-five performances. It never made it to London, its sets were burned, and it appears there was just not much left besides the script and the songs. And there it sat until the 90s! For me, it was like a GIANT PILE OF CASH that for some odd reason had been left sitting in the middle of the street for fifty years. WHY? Did Porter suck? Was the plot no longer conceivable in the, er, post-atomic world? (Not likely as it debuted in 1946.)

As reassembled by Ian Marshall Fisher, Around the World is a show with some really great songs, lively performances, and – it has to be said – a bit of a gap in the storyline. How does Phileas Fogg (David Firth) get from Hong Kong to California? How did his American manservant Passepartout (Lance Fuller) reunite with his Oirish girlfriend Molly (Rebekah Hinds)? The running time was still a substantial (near) three hours, but perhaps a little more exposition was called for. (Apparently in the Pacific gap, Wells had a Yokohaman circus …. somewhat beyond the budget of this performance but fun to imagine.)

The songs, though, are just really great, if occasionally shockingly racist. I had a pretty hard time stomaching “Missus Aouda” – a comic song about suttee. It was just black, black, black, but on the peformers carried! Truth be told, there were only nine songs in total, all witty in the Porter style, but my how sensibilities have changed. I enjoyed greatly the outrageous policemen (Michael Roberts and James Vauight, I believe), with their choreographed bouncing and twitching, but when we had Egyptians who were all dishonest and smelled, and a Chinese woman who was, of course, selling opium while waving her fan and acting completely “inscrutable” – was this really acceptable 70 years ago? I’ll say that the Americans and British were also mocked, but we (Americans) were only portrayed as ignorant, not subhuman. It just all left me flabbergasted.

That said, there was still lots to enjoy in this production, and I was pleased that they’d gone the extra mile and added more choreography than for the normal show. For a fan of Cole Porter, or someone who’s curious about those gaps in musical theater history, this show was a good investment of both time and money … the kind of thing that made you wonder, “What if?”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, Octover 20th, 2013. It continues at Sadler’s Wells Lilian Baylis studio on the 3, 9 and 10 of November, then moves to New York City’s Mint Theater from December 6-12th.)

Mini-review – The Fantasist – Theatre Temoin at Tristan Bates Theater: Suspense Festival

November 1, 2013

One of the things I like about puppetry is how it lets performers go further than they can when working with just humans. Puppets can fly easily, their heads can come off (and keep talking); with puppets, there’s no reason why “real bears” can’t have houses and make porridge. For this reason, I was more inclined than not to believe the publicity materials for The Fantasist, which said it explored “the murky depths and glorious heights of bipolar disorder.” I’ve known a lot of people with this problem, and I thought that puppetry could really allow the performance to get to places it might have had a hard time managing just using people (not that the puppets weren’t manipulated by people!), and had high hopes for a good show. Or, you know, it could be exploitative, or cutesy, or overly condescending; but my fingers were crossed.

As it turns out, this show rated the hype, and was, in fact, even better than I’d imagined … solidly grounded in the reality of bipolar disorder, yet able to communicate the lived experience to the audience in a way that had me tearing up and was imaginative and thoughtful. The center of the play is Louise (Julia Yevnine), a young woman whose brain is taking her for a ride. Sometimes she’s barreling along at exhilarating speeds, some times slowing to a pace approaching that of growing trees (nicely illustrated by having people speak quickly when Louise makes this switch). Her fears, paranoias, and delusions are captured at times as puppets speaking to her, but at other times simply by the refusal of the furniture (or her body) to behave normally. Interspersed with the puppetry/manipulation bits are scenes where she is visited by her NHS carer as well as a friend of hers: this allows us to see/mirror the difficulty “normal” people have in dealing with people who are bipolar, but also to see, in reality, what it looks like from the “outside” (taking medication, not getting medication, how to give advice/see things from a medical perspective).

It was clear from watching this what an incredibly messy life this is from the inside, and how isolating it can all be, when your head is working against you and making you act in ways that drive people away (Louise accidentally slapping her friend when she was startled being one example). You want to see Louise succeed when her artistic influences are in control, but it doesn’t change the fact that the frame of mind she’s in when she’s most inspired can also be very dangerous for her. And the loneliness … when one little puppet crawled in her lap and said, “I love you,” I nearly broke.

At the end, I was amazed to see that the puppeteers (Cat Gerrard and Julia Correa) had also been playing the other two women all along. It in some way added some additional psychological depth to the story, but, really, it didn’t need any more. The Fantasist was an excellent play that warmly rewarded the investment of one hour and twelve quid: I hope all nights are as full as the one I attended.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 7 PM on Thursday, October 31st, 2013. It continues through Saturday, November 2nd.)