Archive for February, 2014

Review – Urinetown – St James Theater

February 26, 2014

It’s tempting for me to write this review using as many tasteless puns as I can fit in. But I think I’ll hold off on that for now. Instead, I’ll share what was going through my mind as I watched Urinetown at the St James Theater …

“Right, so, okay, we’ve got a dystopian future here. Water shortage. Major tragedy as people are being extorted to use toilets as it’s no longer legal to have them at home. Um, but wait … nobody’s heard of a chamber pot? Oh god, this must have been written by Americans, right? Americans who believe in the God-given right to pee into huge quantities of water?

“Oh, look, now they’re ironically/post-modernically addressing the audience, actually talking about how to plot a musical and what they’re going to reveal in the second act. Pity they can’t get anywhere near the levels of irony of Starlight‘s ‘Poppa’s Blues.’ Oh, wait, God, so people are being brutalized by the police, so it’s supposed to be grim and funny and post-ironic? 1984 meets Thoroughly Modern Millie?

“But who would ever have wanted to see this thing? It’s not like it’s got really good songs or anything. Wait, is this actually a modern-day Springtime for Hitler? This show obviously was designed to be a flop! Who would want to pay to see a show that features people pissing on stage! It’s all a big joke!

“But wait, maybe it’s a big joke on me. I’m the one who paid full price for the ticket. On the other hand, I only paid 20 quid to sit here in the back row and I’m not really feeling bothered that I can’t see the heads of the people on the upper half of the set. Man, I can’t believe this was the same price I paid to see Finian’s Rainbow. Now there’s a show with some music.

“Heh, they got the joke about Urine Good Company. Hard not to make that one. But how come they missed making a joke about spending a penny? Oh yeah, American. And I can’t really say the producers pissed their money away because they certainly got in some talent to do this show. Rosanna Hyland, now she’s got some voice, great choice for the heroine. Jenna Russell, wow, I remember her from Merrily We Roll Along, she’s got pipes and is quite an actress, nice to see her again. And Richard Fleeshman? Is there really no reason for his character to take off his shirt? It would probably add another star to this show … Oh wait, interval, I bet there’s going to be a line for the toilets.”

“Right, somehow I made it back. It’s not wretched, right, I just am bored. Oh wait! Finally, a good song! And another one, one right after another! It almost makes up for … well, no it doesn’t. And people are really, really cheering. I guess they were desperate for something to like.

“Oh, god, finally, it’s all over. I guess the writers never read anything about composting toilets, either. Man, considering the way the utility companies screw over the citizens with the government’s blessing – saying they ought to “make less tea” or “share showers” to save energy, like staying warm in your house in the winter isn’t a matter of human rights – you’d think they could have made a really crisp, poignant show about corporate greed and government by the plutocracy. Instead, this show just feels stale and boring. But hey, at least I didn’t spend much on it, and I can get out the door quickly and go home.”

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, February 25th, 2014. Urinetown continues through May.)


Review – Finian’s Rainbow – Phil Willmott at Union Theater

February 26, 2014

When I hear people complain about musicals – and by people, I mean people who just don’t like musicals – the theme tends to be that they just don’t make sense. People suddenly burst into song – this is seen as unusual by people who haven’t sat near me at 4:50 on a Friday afternoon – and the plots are frothy.

Now, I’ll agree that if you watch Hollywood musicals of the 30s or stage musicals of the 20s and 30s, the plots are at times little more than excuses to string together some songs, much in the same way pasties and g-strings work for strippers. The plot is not the point. And for some shows, there isn’t even a plot: it really is just songs and skits, what I consider a musical revue.

There is certainly plenty of room for acting in musicals, and I for one do like to have a plot of at least the gauzy dress variety. But I give up a certain adherence to logic when I go to musicals, because what I’m frequently hoping for is to be transported – to be wrapped in an experience of singing, music, and dance that causes my more critical faculties to be poofed away like the fuzz on the head of a dandelion. It’s a cruel world out there, and I swear on a stack of bibles that a good tap dance routine does a lot to sweeten the burden that is life. It does for me, anyway.

Finian’s Rainbow is exactly the kind of sweet, goofy show you want to go to when you need a little something to chase the blues away, when a love story with a happy ending that sends you out the door whistling a jaunty tune is just what the doctor ordered. The plot, about Irish immigrants who bring a leprechaun with them to Depression-era rural Tennessee, wins all of the points for imagination, with no pretense at believability. We’ve got a pot of gold, we’ve got a girl who talks with her feet, we’ve got wishes being granted right and left. God knows mine were, because the songs of Finian’s Rainbow are no fairy gold – they’re true-blue, best of the songbook standards of a quality you’d could spend a year watching new musicals without seeing once. “Old Devil Moon,” “How are Things in Glocca Morra?” I had never heard these songs in context before but I couldn’t believe how lush they were.

Of course, it helped tremendously that the leads had very strong pipes. Christina Bennington is especially magnetic as Sharon; not only does she have a sweet, true voice, but even when she was just listening to other people speak, her charisma held the stage. Joesph Peters is a nice dueter as Woody Mahoney, but his character slides a bit too far to caricature to be compelling. Sadly, a trick was missed with Raymond Walsh’s Og; his big solo could have been a real show-stopper but was instead pleasant but low on calories. Ah well, Laura Bella Griffin’s silent Susan Mahoney managed to say it with her feet; in fact, the dancing in general knocked the walls back. How did they get so much movement in such a small space? As ever, the effect of all of this in the Union is just overwhelming, a kind of theatrical high – some 22 actors all singing in harmony, and dancing, from two feet away and on all sides? It’s the kind of experience you’ll get nowhere else in London, like one of those sound experiments when you have a speaker on each side of you and you feel like you’re actually there. Only, in this case, you are, and it’s really heady fun.

In a time when the government is working on kicking the poor out of every place they live and build their communities, whether through a bedroom tax or simply shipping subsidized housing (and the people that live in it) away from jobs and off to the hinterlands, the “message” of Finian’s Rainbow is actually still quite relevant, although the community it depicts, with people of all races living together peacefully, still seems a bit of a dream. But it’s a dream I enjoyed watching playing out in front of me (I can’t tell you how happy I was to see a black character in a play from the 40s talking about going to Tuskegee University!). Even if this play is a little slice of fantasy, it was the flavor I gobbled up hungrily. And if the musical equivalent of dessert is what’s on your menu tonight, you could hardly do better than Finian’s Rainbow.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 22nd, 2014. It continues through March 15th.)

Review – Sizwe Bansi Is Dead – Young Vic

February 23, 2014

How do you pick plays to see? Do you go to everything starring a favorite actor? Do you see all of the productions of a certain theater (like The Royal Court or The Donmar)? Or do you operate from a series of imaginary (or real) life lists, such as “everything by playwright X” (for me this is Pinter, Ibsen, and Shakespeare) or … something else?

In addition to playwright driven goals, I’ve got an ill-defined life list that is “all of the great plays.” Even if membership in this list comes (and but rarely goes) depending on what I learn about as I continue on as a theater viewer, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was absolutely on it. I missed out seeing it at the Young Vic in September, so this time I jumped on the bandwagon and bought tickets before it opened. I mean, the last time had completely sold out, and they brought it back; when it comes to deciding whether or not this was a quality production, to me the dial was definitely turned toward “yes.” And I’ve seen other plays by Athol Fugard and found him an infinitely watchable playwright, soaked in the core mysteries of what makes people tick and a creator of fully believable plays enhanced (not limited) by the seasoning of his own national background.

This brings us to his most famous work. As ever, I did not research it before I went: other than “quintessential apartheid play,” I was in the dark. I walked into the theater, diverted by a sign (and guard) pointing one way for blacks, and another for whites. The couple in front of me went into a different door than I did. Ah yes, I thought: the world of the Scottsboro Boys; my country did this, too.

The play is practically split in two halves, the first a folksy introduction to the life of a typical black man living under apartheid. Perhaps he was not truly typical, for our protagonist, Mr Styles (Tonderai Munyevu) is employed at a good job in an industrial plant. I enjoyed his story of the daily indignities he endured and his comic ways of keeping his spirits up in spite of it … though eventually he decides to leave it all and become the owner of a photo studio. I wondered how realistic it was that any particular individual could become a successful sole proprietor during that era, and if things were actually more peaceful then than they are now. And it was all very upbeat. Was I being served up Fugard’s idea of the happy oppressed South African, all full of laughs and irony? I was disappointed that such a slight (if entertaining) play had garnered so much attention. On the other hand, given that I was expecting it to be a pile of gloom and doom, I was pleasantly surprised at the tone.

As it turns out, this is very much the sweet coating to to the much weightier story underneath. A second character, played by Sibusiso Mamba, finally appears … but after all of this time waiting, he, too, is not Sizwe Bansi! What the hell, was I actually at a Southern Hemisphere take on Godot? Two actors, no Bansi, NOBODY IS EVER GOING TO DIE and I am going to be stuck listening to Mr Styles making jokes about cats and cockroaches.

And then with a flash of the camera, we are taken to the world of South African in 1972, when the permits on your tribal identity card – and the word of the white man – determined where you could live, where you could work, if you could see your family, whether you starved or scraped by. And at last we get to meet Mr Bansi, and we, the audience, can sit back and wait for the unpleasantness that is watching a character we have grown attached to die on us.

Seeing the Kafkaesque struggles of the pathetically decent family man Sizwe Bansi as he attempts to overcome the white bureaucracy’s heroic attempts to keep him penniless and his children hungry, I couldn’t help but think of the modern British state, working so hard to save us from dangerous, non-British people like Mark Harper’s cleaner and fighting to make sure that loving married couples aren’t together unless the British partner earns some predetermined amount (set, again, by the bureaucracy). Because, you know, government wants to support families by keeping them poor and, better yet, living apart, so their children only know mom/dad via Skype.

Now, I’m not going to deny that I saw how this story was going to go from a mile off. I did. But what I didn’t think was that as I sat there, watching it, I would feel so strongly that this play was not just about the injustices of the apartheid era – for so it is – but so universally about the injustice of any government that stops treating people like human beings and starts treating them like numbers – like problems, as “targets to be reached” (does this one sound familiar) with no accounting for the impact on their lives. I’ve had hoop after hoop put in front of me to allow me to stay in this country, supposedly to “make sure I’m gainfully employed,” but, in truth, to try to keep every opportunity for me to be one more number on the negative side of the balance sheet. This country has managed to get up in arms about identity cards, but fights to escaped from being governed by the EU’s laws on human rights. It’s shameful.

Sizwe Bansi: still incredibly powerful. Still relevant. 100 percent tip to toe a must see.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, February 15th, 2014. It continues through March 15th, although it is almost entirely sold out.)

Review – The Fat Man’s Wife – Canal Cafe Theater

February 18, 2014

After seven years of living in the world capital of theater, I have to honestly say that my attitude toward seeing previously unproduced works of well known playwrights has changed. These days, rather than thinking there’s a work of genius waiting to be discovered, I’m more prone to thinking that perhaps the sleeping dog was meant to lie. I’ve been let down by writers as great as Eugene O’Neill and, rather notably, by my favorite Ibsen (Emperor and Galilean debuted 150 after the fact and will hopefully never darken our stages again). And, sadly, the same is true for Tennessee Williams. But then again, I found Ibsen’s never before performed (in the UK) St. John’s Night quite enjoyable, and the Tennessee Williams’ short plays performed as a part of the first incarnation of The Hotel Plays were pretty successful … sp why not head to a new venue (for me) and see how The Fat Man’s Wife held up some seventy years later? At the very least, The Fat Man’s Wife might give me some more insights into Tennessee Williams as a writer – and it was in a pub (hurray!) so I could join in what I was sure was going to be some on-stage drinking. And, in case everything went downhill fast, I consoled myself that it had a short running time.

The characters of The Fat Man’s Wife seem familiar … the mustachioed young playwright Dennis (very much seeming like a stand in for Williams – Damien Hughes), the shallow theater producer Joe (Richard Stephenson Winter), and Vera (Emma Taylor), Joe’s beautiful, middle-aged, frustrated wife. Vera is struggling to find a way to make her life meaningful to her – while her marriage gives her some social standing (and clearly money), she’s not married to someone who’s an intellectual equal. She’s also clearly has no sexual connection with her philandering husband. So what might make her feel alive? The attention of a handsome, sexual man like Dennis.

As a script, The Fat Man’s Wife seems thin. It’s not helped by Winter’s wandering New York-ese accent (seemingly lifted from Goodfellas, then forgotten, to be replaced with something far more general) or Hughes’ failed Southern speech (a mish-mash of speech impediment and Atlantean), which distracted me greatly but might have improved over the course of the run (I went to a preview). Taylor had absolutely the right look for Vera but didn’t seem to get to the crackling, steaming blood that ought to have been flowing right underneath her skin – instead, she seemed content to inhabit the peevish side of her character. But to some extent, I wonder if they only found what was in the script … if the fuller fleshed characters Williams brought so convincingly to life in later plays simply couldn’t be extracted from such a small plot. The moonlight (real!) shining through the windows (real!) of the Canal Cafe certainly helped – the whole experience was very atmospheric – but there’s never a moment where you feel like Vera is willing to give up her silk lingerie and penthouse apartment in exchange for hot sex on a grotty boat. With that tension gone, it’s all a matter of marching through to the end (while wondering if just maybe it was all a dream).

It seems that, to be a character in a Tennessee Williams play, you have to expect that your hopes will be shot down; but it’s not so for the audience. This play, however tantalizing it was, failed to gel; I suspect it was rightly left in a drawer.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 13th, 2014. It continues through March 2nd.)

Review – The White Carnation – Troupe at the Jermyn Street Theater

February 13, 2014

After watching the transfer production of The White Carnation at Jermyn Street, I had this sudden vision of what it was I had just seen: comfort theater. Do you want to see a show in which people don’t deal with really difficult issues, a show with an upbeat ending, a show in which most of the people are comic caricatures of actual human beings, a show with a fair amount of laughs that sends you home feeling warm and fuzzy? Well, The White Carnation is just the play for you. As the lights came up and I looked over the sea of well dressed, gray haired attendees at the first night of this show’s transfer from the Finborough, I felt that in no way was anyone wanting a night that would be mentally/emotionally/physically taxing.

And that’s exactly what The White Carnation delivers. It’s a ghost story, but a comedy; a comedy with a vicar (Benjamin Whitrow, spotless) making jokes about how wrong it would be for a Catholic to try to exorcise a ghost that had been Church of England when alive: a comedy in which civil servants (Phillip York, a bit heavy handed) and town councilmen go wild trying to figure out how law applies to the walking dead; a play in which a policeman (Thomas Richardson, really laying it on) feels free to try to convince someone he’s guarding that they should go into business together. It’s not really a farce, per se, but a play in which British stereotypes and British bureaucracy are given a platform to play freely and the audience is allowed to have a good laugh. I had actually been expecting something quite creepy and disturbing, like An Inspector Calls or The Woman in White, but instead I actually had quite a few good laughs (I know, finally a comedy that I actually enjoy, it had been ages!).

Now, I can’t fault the performance of Michael Praed as the lead character, John Greenwood – he seemed seamlessly to be what he was meant to be, a rich man who was very focused on money and a bit of a bully – but so many of the rest of the actors seemed so cardboardy. I couldn’t feel it was much their fault (as it was a transfer, I expect they were pretty settled in their roles) as it just seemed that it’s how they were written – Sherriff wasn’t intending on pushing his audience, he wanted to please them.

But, you know, The White Carnation did what it said on the tin, and I did managed to be both surprised and a little teary at the ending. You may not have seen it before, so I’ve tried to be obscure about the plot points; but if you want to be lightly entertained, this play (and production) will certainly deliver. Otherwise, for about the same price you can see a trio of Samuel Becket plays across the West End at the Duchess. (I preferred it but frankly I don’t want to have exotic small plates for dinner every night; sometimes a Sunday roast is really what the doctor ordered.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 5th. It continues through February 22nd.)

Review – Drunk – McOnie Company at Bridewell Theater

February 10, 2014

Certain combinations of things set off my reviewer radar. New show, new space … is it a pre-West End run or a bad idea about to die? Given the miserable weather, a “musical dance revue” on the theme of liquor still inspired me to go and hope for the best. It helped that “Drunk” was choreographed by Drew McOnie, who proved pretty comprehensively in the Leicester Curve’s Chicago that he knows how to make people move across a stage in interesting ways. And on paper, the cast list looked surprisingly good – dancers from Matthew Bourne, A Chorus Line, really proven talent and very high in the UK scene … and even Gemma Sutton, the Roxie for McOnie’s Chicago. In some ways, the ingredients for success all seemed ready and waiting … rather like a top shelf tequila, a slice of lime, and a salt shaker sitting on the bar of a taqueria. Lick it, slam it, suck it, I thought!

As it turned out, Drunk overdelivered on its promise, with the eight performers positively burning up the floor in a series of numbers loosely structured by Gemma Sutton’s character’s trials (and memories) as she sits in a bar waiting for her date of the evening to show up. This sparked in her the questions, “What do I order? What kind of impression to I want to create?” but dramatically speaking her musings were simply there to tie together a variety of great dance pieces (and occasional songs) that incorporate ballroom, Broadway, acrobatics, mime (oh the polo ponies and rowing crew of Pimms, TOO funny!) and story telling in a entertaining and engrossing way.

As a dance fan, the moves were great, and even more intense given the intimate nature of the Bridewell Theater (I’m guessing it holds 150 people – though the sightlines meant that performers’ feet, and sometimes their bodies, slipped from view). However, as a musical theater fan, I loved how well the story telling took place – from pure comedy (“Fosters,” I believe, the tale of an Australian who failed at computin’ when it wasn’t about rootin’) to heartbreaking tragedy (“Scotch and Run”).

All of this was done to a very big band sound, thanks to a trumpet and sax (in addition to piano, drums and bass), which gave it a real classical musical feel. But best of all was the really top performers that had been recruited in to this show. The producers splashed out on real talent, and you could feel it, see it, all but taste it in your mouth. This wasn’t a workshop of a maybe show – this was a deep pockets investment in something really good that ought to be going places.

It all ended about ninety minutes after it began without once wearing out its welcome. With no snazzy new musicals on stage right now, fans of the form ought to get themselves to the Bridewell tout suite – Drunk is unlikely to stay long in its intimate venue with performances this big. Make mine a double!

(This review, which ran in a version in The Public Reviews, is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 6th, 2014. It continues through Saturday, March 1st. )


Review – In Skagway – KTR Productions at Arcola Theatre

February 9, 2014

I find the idea of seeing a new play with an all-female cast pretty exciting, the more so for being set in Alaska, a state frequently known (in America) for the huge male skew of its population. This could be a play in which the effects of being a hugely in demand minority – a situation which shits the balance of power – can be addressed directly! A play in which women can talk to each other about things that only women have to deal with! And being set during the gold rush era made In Skagway even more appetizing – I’d read a lot about the history of that period while living in Seattle, and the experience of women seemed like a ripe topic for dramatic exploration.

And then the play started and I had the sudden feeling that the writer had what she thought was a great idea – a play about Frankie (Angeline Ball), a showgirl who’s had a stroke – and just basically ran with it without bothering to do any more historical research than a quick trip through Wikipedia. The characters spoke in modern language, had modern morals, and seemed to have only been dipped in the late Victorian era. Where did this imaginary female prospector with her Indian lover come from? Given how few women made it to Alaska, it was clear to me that T-Belle (Kathy Rose O’Brian), “fresh from the claim,” was purely a figment of Karen Ardiff’s imagination. I could buy Frankie’s story – a music hall star who comes to Alaska to make some easy money (I made this back story up, it was not explained) – but how in the world did an Irish emigre wind up talking like she was from California? The whole thing snapped the tethers of believability from the very beginning: as we say in America, it jumped the shark and long before we ever got in the boat.

There were some good things about this show, though. Despite the horrible cognitive dissonances caused by the characters, the acting was uniformly engaging, and by the time we got to the scene where bad girl “Nelly the Pig” (Natasha Starkey) breaks into Frankie’s cabin, I was actually quite caught up in what was going to happen when an amoral ball of “looking out for number one” confronted her supposed friend, now crippled. This scene also allowed Frankie to start narrating what was going on in her perception of events as a person who’d had a stroke, which I thought was a bit oversimplified from what actual stroke victims perceive (the ones I’ve known have actually had a lot of their thought processes in good place despite loss of speaking capability), especially in regards to her inability to see the danger of what was happening around her. So again, I’ve got issues with how the writer handled the issues, and wonder to what extent she’s researched how strokes affect people – it felt to me like she wrote Frankie as she wanted her to be, not as the stroke would have made her, and this is against my theory of what makes compelling theater – characters who seems so real that THEY determine what happens to them. Ultimately, Frankie is a victim of bad writing, not a debilitating illness or bad life decisions. And to really care about her and the other women, she needs to have more reality than she was given.

That said, as acted, Ball did a good job of making Frankie a believable stroke victim; and I loved the way lighting designer Katharine Williams mirrored Frankie’s loss of self in the flickering of the Northern Lights through the clapboard slats of the cabin. But these were just a few nice touches in what was otherwise a grinding evening (that, by the way, still failed the Bechdel test as every one of the women winds up talking rather too much about men). Fortunately, it was about ninety minutes through with no interval, but it was still not my taste at all.

(This review is for a performance which took place on February 7th, 2014. It continues through March 1st. For a sharper review, please see Nick’s writeup.)

Review – Project Lolita – Angry Bairds at The Vault Festival

February 7, 2014

Of all of the aspects of daily life in the 21st century, it’s the use of cell phone and computers to talk to other people that seems to not be registering on the theatrical consciousness. People apparently still talk almost entirely in cafes, homes, and parks; this, however, seems to be because of a limitation of the imagination. Conversations happen by text, by chat, in emails, and with the new-fangled live computer video thingie that’s straight out of The Jetsons.

The Lolita Factor is a rare play that takes on the complexity of communication in the modern world and, rather than trying to dumb it down to standard theatrical tropes, tries to push the boundary of representation so that the lives actually being lived today are being shown on stage. Fourteen year old Katie (Charlotte Green) chats on Facebook like a real kid – with a screen behind her showing her FB screen and that of the person she’s talking to.

But there’s a twist, see, because one of these people is actually spying on the other. You might even say they were grooming them. And this is real spying, with a government handler behind the screens who shows up on Skype to coach the spy in catching the perp. Only we’ve moved into more of a future dystopia where thought crime is good enough for prosecution. Will the cat catch the mouse? And who is the mouse, really?

Living in the kind of surveillance state the UK is, where people are being thrown in jail and prosecuted for posts on Twitter, this tiny movement further forward into entrapment and state manipulation (hey, they have targets to meet!) seems all too possible. The final confrontation scenes are especially hair raising: what line is about to be crossed? Will the show suddenly have a happy ending or does Winston (Joe, actually – Moj Taylor) get the rats?

For one hour, it’s all pretty intense, and while Charlotte Green doesn’t entirely convince as a pre-teen, Taylor is effortlessly believable as a possible paedo. (Tino Orsini’s turn as V, the “man behind the curtain,” suffers from being mostly done via video projection.) The cheap and sloppy set is good enough to do what it needs to; overall, time and money are well invested in this production.

(This review, originally written for The Public Reviews, was for a performance that took place on Tuesday, February 4th. It runs until 8 February.)


Review – Shangalang – Kings Head Theater

February 6, 2014

Dark and gloomy winter day, feel the force of THE BAY CITY ROLLERS. That was my inspiration for a trek into the deepest wilds of Islington (beyond the Almeida!) to the Kings Head Theater, where a night spent watching a second play by the author of Mama Mia seemed a likely mood lifter. Three middle aged women go off for a seventies weekend where “nothing quite goes according to plan?” Just add a few pints of cider and it sounded perfect – despite the fact Shangalang hadn’t seen a revival since its 1998 debut at the Bush Theatre.

Surprisingly, this was not a particularly cheerful story. It’s really about the disappointments of middle age, and it’s worse than usual as not only are the characters realizing they haven’t accomplished their dreams (and aren’t likely to), but they’re also discovering that the people in their lives are unsupportive and sometimes downright mean. This was really unexpected given that it was billed as a fun romp, but, truth be told, after lead characters Pauline (Lisa Kay) and Jackie (Kellie Batchelor) take off their wigs and ruffled shiny satin jumpsuits in the second ten minutes, this play is really about women hitting middle age gracelessly.

To summarize: Pauline is forty and wants “true love” – not an unreasonable wish for anyone – but is so fixated on finding “the one” that she seems to have not spent any time investing in developing herself as a person. She’s shallow, selfish and immature, demanding time and attention from her friends without bothering to be a friend back. This is a shame, because her best mate Jackie, who is in an unloving, controlling relationship with her husband, really needs support. Then there’s third wheel Lauren (Samantha Edmonds), who is little more than a functioning alcoholic and could have used a solid intervention years ago.

To play off of these characters we have two guys who are performing in the tribute bands: Vince (Thomas Craig) and Carl (Ben McGregor). Vince is a pile of middle-aged issues who spends all of his time complaining about his ex; while Carl is a good-time boy with a big libido and little moral backbone. The men (and two of the women) hook up, which leads to a situation in which a lot of the uglier elements of female relationships are revealed, such as jealousy, slut-shaming, lookism … frankly, everything that a “weekend with the girls” is supposed to NOT be. It was terrible to watch the three women ripping into each other – even worse than it had been listening to them talk about their lives as if men (and pulling men) was really all there was to life. And this is BEFORE the men get started in on the women. What I wouldn’t have given for all of them to have just broken out into song, but no such luck!

The show ended quite ambiguously, with some tentative attempts at outreach between Jackie and Pauline that didn’t seem likely to undo the damage from earlier. While it had clearly been a transformative weekend for them, it seemed like what they had discovered was how hopelessly crap their lives were. A teenaged dream, before this show, might have been to have a cute young pop star as a boyfriend; but the message I walked away with was that it is believing that your friends will really be there for you that is the real illusion of youth, one whose loss hurts far more than not getting a date with David Bowie.

Fortunately, the performances in this tiny space were quite good. Edmonds’ Lauren was so believable as a moral-free good time girl and mooch; Kay seemed not to have a bit of shame about anything her character was doing; Craig’s turnaround from angry working man to “hearts and butterflies” seemed very naturalistic; and Batchelor really caught the balancing act her character was trying to pull off as she attempted to be a good friend and a constrained wife. For heavy-duty Rollers fans, there probably wasn’t enough of the music (as most of the snippets were short) to satisfy, but it nicely created a mood. Still, it’s a shame the characters didn’t seem to learn a bit from the weekend … it would have taken some of the bitterness away and made the show not feel so down.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 25th. It continues through February 15th.)


Mini-Review – Half a Person: My Life as Told by The Smiths – Kings Head Theater

February 5, 2014

It seems kind of embarrassing to admit it these days but, yes, I’m a Smith’s fan and have been since I got that first grubby 45 off of the back of a copy of NME I bought at Tower Records Phoenix back in 1984 – an event which also led to me discovering The Cocteau Twins and, in a tale best suited to a pub, having my Siouxsie collection stolen after attending a Smiths gig in sunny California. Yes, I wasn’t always going to the theater five nights a week – I used to listen to music a lot. And who better for a depressive, intellectual teen to listen to than the Smiths? I certainly wasn’t going vegetarian but I was absolutely not getting laid and I certainly didn’t have any money so I was very receptive to the Smiths message (even if I also didn’t have a clue who Myra Hindley was or what a headmaster did). I mean, hey, just when you thought everything really was shit, there was Johnnie Marr coming through like a little beam of sunshine to remind you that there are still flowers peeking through the mud after whatever devastation has wiped your emotional landscape clean. Sunny days and cemeteries, finding out getting what you want still leaves you miserable; good lessons for life, really. And, later, a good reason to laugh because it’s all so sincere and miserabilist, but still fun to sing along with as you gently mock your teenaged self.

Then suddenly it’s twenty five years later and you’re in a theater watching someone tell a story about their life during the period when they were hopelessly obsessed with the Smiths. Half a Person is a bit of a cruel concept as a show, because it’s almost impossible to be that caught up in your own emotions and not look pathetic. In William’s case, he looks far worse because his degree of being caught up in his own life means he’s entirely oblivious to the struggles of those around him – including his so called best friend. I can accept that William (Joe Presley, very yummy in his inappropriate-for-a-skint-boy Armani underpants) was unaware that his writer friend had a crush on him, but to just totally not notice he was dying of cancer? That’s beyond tragic, so far beyond that it’s comic. “Hi, yeah, really sorry I was too busy having sex and then trying to figure out why my girlfriend dumped me, but I didn’t bother looking up from my shoes long enough to notice you’d lost a lot of weight.” Wow, now that’s a best friend for you!

What’s really odd is that both of the main story lines, of the girlfriend and the friend dying of cancer, seemed to have the reality of someone’s actual experience underneath them, but added together, they weren’t enough to make William a particularly interesting character – sadly, he was a bit too much the half a person mentioned in the story title. I think writer Alex Broun probably should have picked one story or another and really gone for it, and possibly fleshed William out a little more. Unfortunately, songs seemed to take the place of plot, which just didn’t work for me. (And can I say how dreadfully obvious it was for me as a Smiths fan to have characters named William and Sheila and then spend the next half an hour just waiting for the song to start? Urgh.)

As far as plays celebrating the work of a particular band, though, this show certainly hit the nail on the head for Smiths fans. But for me, as a person whose identity is more about excellence in theater and less about staring in the mirror and wondering if I got the waistband of my cruelty free jeans arranged just right on my hipbone, it just wasn’t enough, although for the price and the time invested, I still felt it was worth seeing. But, as I said, I am a Smith’s fan; if you’re not, the show may leave you singing a different tune: “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, February 2nd, 2014. It continues through February 16th.)