Archive for March, 2014

Mini-review – Versailles – Donmar Warehouse

March 27, 2014

Me (at first interval): Well, how are you finding it?

Him: It’s interesting. I wonder where they’re going to go with it?

Me: It feels to me like the leftovers between the interesting scenes of a minor Merchant Ivory film.

Him: Of course, if the whole point is revealing he’s gay, then it’s not very interesting, is it? I wonder what the conflict is?

Me: Do you stay through the second act, or cut your losses and leave at the first?

(We left at the second. By that time he was bored as well.)




Mini-reviews – Analog.Ue and Riverrun – single handers at the National Theatre

March 21, 2014

A play performed by a person setting out reel to reel players that recite bits of a story a few minutes at a time: sounds great, right? I’d seen Analog.Ue described somewhere as a sound experiment, and at £12 I was very willing to let the National take me for a journey.

Unfortunately, despite Daniel Kitson saying he wanted this to not be a show about him, well, it was, and it was self-indulgent and boring, little more than a parlor trick. Yes, he got something like 50 machines to actually do the trick of playing a story (a few interlayered ones) in sequence. No, what they had to say was not interesting. It was like reading a book, only if it had been I’d have been able to close it and not have to walk over 20 people to get out of the theater and away from the boredom.

To make it all the more frustrating, I’d just read a really great review in the Metro for Olwen Fouéré’s Riverrun, and I felt burned as hell that I’d just wasted two hours on a pile of self-indulgent crap when I could have seen something really awesome and there was no way in hell I could see the other show. For once it wasn’t because it was sold out: it was because it was a short run, and me, I had a show Tuesday, surgery scheduled for the next day, and then was going to be laid up for at least a week. Riverrun closed on Saturday. The gods spat on me.

Then I caught a lucky break: the doc decided, while I was on the table, that I didn’t need the surgery. What was my thought (about two hours later)? RIVERRUN!!! About 8 tickets were available for Thursday night and I was in.

I’m not going to give a big review of the show – it was, in a way, a staged reading (of Finnegan’s Wake, in fact this bit here), so what’s there to say about one woman reading a memorized section of a book – except, not just separately but contrasted with the show I’d seen before, it was a brilliant, powerful hour in the hands of a master – not just Joyce but Fouere. I wanted to go to experience the words of a great who had flummoxed me as a reader spoken aloud, to see if meaning and context could be provided by hearing where the eye-brain connection had failed me: and what I got was an evening where I was fully challenged, knowing full well that meaning and context was absolutely there, but sometimes it was eluding my grasp.

The words, spoken, were like Lewis Carroll spinning out Proust, with all of the ridiculous catchphrases that Proust cut out forced back in but turned inside-out. I would not make it make linear sense, so I just surrendered and let the patterns that would form do so: sometimes getting bits of this and that, sometimes going into a bit of a free-association zone that had me thinking, “Life is long and we have many chances to love. I’m going to get me a dog again, a puppy, that I will love and eventually watch grow old and die. But I will enjoy that joyous time while I have it. I have time: I can make it happen again” all in a flash while Anna Livia Plurabelle talked about leaves and her father and places I had never visited in beautiful, lush language that I glimpsed like a gold nugget rolling along a silty creek bed, just there, glowing, then covered with mud again.

Never once did I have a doubt about Olwen knowing what she was saying; she spoke and it was up to me to be able to make it cohere. She treated me as someone with the power to rise up, not as a person who needed to be spoken down to. And, as I hoped, I left the theater with the strong desire to read Joyce, and an unshakeable feeling that I had just seen something really, really good: a powerful hour performed masterfully. This was what I went to theater for; not to be pandered to but to have that brass ring of amazingness held out for me to reach for. Thank you, Ms Fouéré, for having faith in us.

(Analog.ue was seen on March 17th and has closed. Riverrun, no relationship to the novel of S.P. Somtow, was seen on March 20th and runs through March 22nd.

Review – SPACED 2014 – a Theatre Delicatessen Souk Festival

March 20, 2014

A tweet caught my eye about Theatre Delicatessen’s small theater festival – not quite a one on one fest, but something like it, with the intriguing but critical difference that you needed to negotiate with the bazaar of performers offering shows/experiences whathaveyou for the amount you wanted to pay for each thing you did. I didn’t recognize any of the names of people they said were going to be performing (and there were no other details provided of what was happening), but I love intimate theater and I was intrigued by the bargaining element, so I loaded up a bag with liquor, sweets, and carb filled treated and arrived at the Theater Delicatessen space at Marlyebone High Street promptly at seven, when, according to the website, the “marketplace would open.”

Well. Cue the organization disaster that marked the entire evening as soon as I showed up, where some thirty people were waiting to get into the “marketplace” and not moving very fast. By the time I got in I knew a substantial amount of the life history of the woman standing behind me and had also managed to miss almost 30 minutes of performances. I finally got a “program” when I got to the front of the queue – a list of the performers with teeny bios and two liners about what their shows were going to be. I hurridly tucked it into my pocket and rushed inside, where a video display of all of the shows and the times they were taking place (but not how long they took) was hung prominently over an stairwell. I tried to figure out which space was where (and even where upstairs and downstairs were) when suddenly some ladies came up to me. “Do you like cake?” they asked. And, since I do, I followed them into The Cake Shop, where, I was promised, the event would end with me being given a custom cake designed exactly to my tastes.

Now, let’s be clear, Plunge Theatre’s Cake Shop pandered to my baser interests, by which I mean, generally, my sweet tooth, and, specifically, my love of cake. I was indeed given a sweet taste consultation by a snappily dressed young woman who extolled the creaminess of the sponge cake and the delightful texture of the homemade marshmallows on our private multi-layered cake stand and carefully probed my responses to the different sweet things on offer. Oddly, bits of the walls behind the counter began to pop out while we talked until finally some body-stocking dressed women emerged to observe us while we ate our sweets. Toward the end, I was handed a perfect cupcake with some pink icing on it, then lined up (with the other participants) amongst the stocking women – I think the point was that body consciousness makes people not enjoy wonderful things like cake. I, however, am immune to sweet or fat shaming, given that I spent about six months last year being very upset because I was so ill I kept losing weight and had no enjoyment whatsoever for pretty much any kind of food. My weight has stabilized, I enjoy treats again, so hurray! Bring it! And my cupcake was just delightful. At the end we were invited to drop some pounds, either on the scale or in the piggybank, and rather than bothering to haggle, I put something in the pig that I thought would help offset the cost of all of the wonderful home-made goodies I’d been treated to. It was a great start to the evening.

I took a few steps away and was met by a woman in a set up reminiscent of a fortune teller. She offered to quiz me and help me determine the correct version of a peep show to see that would be exactly suited to my tastes and comfort levels. I did finally get to haggle here, trading a promise of a positive review if it were good – and nothing if it were bad – in exchange for a discount at the actual coin-operated booth. Flipping the Bird’s Peepshow seemed to have a pretty big overal arc and also provided (I think) eight different possible options once inside the booth – mine being “The Full Meal Deal” or something along those lines.

I took my tokens and went in the booth, where a young, attractive woman told me a tale (requiring coin prompts) about her attraction to an older man and her pleasure at going to his house and having hot sex with him (described quite graphically) knowing she was in the bed he shared with his wife. I remembered, from the perspective of age, how stupid the kinds of decisions are that you make when sex is boiling your brain. I shared my take on this with her, because part of the actual peep show experience is talking to the performner, and, to be honest, guiding them in what they do in the box – while part of their schtick is to try to get you interested enough to keep popping lots of tokens into the slot (there is no end of a “story” for them!) I think this might have put her off a bit, but I was also finding the story depressing – actually, finding out your husband has been cheating on you really makes any story told from “the other woman’s” point of view very much a downer, no matter how excited that person might be about what they’re getting away with.

After this piece ended, the evening began to drag. I spent about an hour unable to see a single show, as either they were in progress, they were already full, or when I waited to get in, I somehow managed to not stand where they were gathering audience members together (causing me to miss Duvet Day, which looked really fun, and Class of ’14). This happened to me twice, and when it began to seem like I was going to spend my whole night chasing experiences that I didn’t even know had “waitlists” (or whatever) to get into, and which started late, it all began to seem like my least favorite Punchdrunk nights, where I spent hour after hour chasing something that had just happened. Pretty quickly things were actually NOT happening anymore, and I just started to see if I could get into anything. I managed to see One Man’s Trash, which I found shrill and irritating (but at least gave me the opportunity to use my goodies to bid on stuff), then sat down with a bottle of water to figure out if it was time to leave.

By good chance I managed to make my way into the last performance of Class of 2014, which, thanks to my airplane bottle of scotch, managed to have me flagged teacher’s pet, giving me the privilege of sitting on a stool and blowing bubbles at the rest of the class. This was a fun, interactive experience, where we, the audience, were talking to each other just as much as Miss was talking to us in our roles as naughty students in detention. Afterwards Miss (Eleanor Massie) and I sat around and worked through my spare alcohol, as class was dismissed and we both needed a chill out. She talked to me about the difficulties of being on for a performance where the audience is interacting with you, and I enjoyed a chance to hear about the creative process and relax, as I’d given up on seeing anything else.

Overall, this show made me long for the organization behind the one to one festival, where, for a fixed price, you got to see a set number of shows that you knew you were goign to get into as well as have the opportunity of seeing other shows that were more spontaneous. The bidding thing of the Souk just wasn’t really happening for me – I gave away my chocolate bars and a banana to the members of a circus troupe who seemed really grateful to have some carbs and sugar – and the flabbiness of the timelines, lack of clarity about how to get into a show, and shortage of visibility before the event about what actually was happening meant that I couldn’t plan beforehand and that there were way too many variables influencing whether or not I got to do much of anything, nevermind anything of quality, once I got on site. I found the evening very frustrating and, while I wound up spending very little in the end, I can’t really recommend it as a good night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 18th, 2014. It continues through March 22nd. Don’t worry about them saying it’s a marketplace, there’s nothing else for sale besides drinks.)

Review – Superman (the musical) – Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre

March 18, 2014

C’mon, be honest: the phrase “Superman: the Musical” probably made you want to run away screaming, right? You’re imagining the overblown bleah of Spiderman meets, I don’t know, the musical know-how (or “ready to capitalize on anything”) of Viva Forever (much in the same way The X Men begat The Green Hornet)? So what if I told you it was actually written in the 60s by the musical team that wrote Bye Bye Birdie? And that the whole thing is performed in a tongue-in-cheek style that was a bit Benny Hill meets Mad Men?

While any play that’s sat on the back burner (this is its London debut) can normally be written off as a waste of stage time, Superman, as done by Star Productions, managed to make being comic book style an advantage, with primary color sets and costumes that brought to mind Roy Lichtenstein. This was an era in which both sexism and racism played out differently from today, and I must admit I shuddered when I saw Ming Foo Ling and Ding Ling on the cast of characters – was this going to be another anti-Asian clunker? As it turns out, these weren’t our baddies, and casting the family of acrobats with Caucasians helped tone down what could have been a really ugly element of the show. As a bonus, well, acrobatics! We had people actually doing somersaults and backflips on the wee wee stage of the Rose & Crown, and I loved it.

Er, yes, plot: Superman (Craig Berry, making full use of his talent for the single-eyebrow lift) is happily ensconced as the hero of Metropolis, to the delight of Lois Lane (Michelle LaFortune, every inch the New York girl) and chagrin of reporter Paul Harwood (Max Mencken). But he’s not the only one who wants to bring him down: there is a villain (Matthew Hibbotson, hamming it up to 11) who sees popping Superman’s bubble of perfection as his means to personal fulfillment. As we make our way to the happy ending we get to see romances develop for both Clark Kent and Lois outside of their traditional roles (each other), which makes the plotting much more interesting. We also get to experience some very sassy relationship handling from Sydney the secretary (Sarah Kennedy), whose big solo “Ooh, Do You Love You?” was both really funny and a great showcase for a snazzy talent (once again confirming that I’m spoiled seeing fringe theater in London).

I actually don’t want to say too much about the show in case you’re thinking about going, because so many of the laughs I had were because of surprises that frequently came from the ironic way they handled nearly everything except, well, the great singing and the “how did they get so many people onstage” dancing. Even the special effects were fun despite being unapologetically on a budget. To be honest, I don’t know if I’d want to see this done with people taking everything seriously – it would have spoiled the fun. I’m really glad I made the hike up to Walthamstow to see this show – at £15 quid a ticket, it overdelivers value. Don’t miss it!

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

Review – The Knight of the Burning Pestle – Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe

March 13, 2014

The opening of a new theater is always a cause for rejoicing, so I was eager to break in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. A Jacobean recreation complete with candles to light it? And a roof? Suddenly I could envision myself making the trip to the Globe much more frequently, only not for the opening show Duchess of Malfi (which was sold out). Instead, I got tickets for the much less competitive Knight of the Burning Pestle, and went knowing very little about it.

There were lots of positives at the beginning: 100% autentico musicians in the galley (an arch lute! a viola da gamba! And was that a shawm?), really precisely historically accurate costumes on the actors, the smell of beeswax everywhere. My side balcony seats weren’t too uncomfortable and had an only slightly obstructed view. But then the show started and it became clear that the “comic” interrupting from the two characters pretending to be Jacobean audience members was going to continue throughout the show.

And I despaired. Oh how I despaired. As the stage show continued, a tissue thin plot emerged – something about thwarted lovers and a confused knight running around Walthamstow Forest looking for maidens to rescue (while wearing a panto-style horse costume), all while being heckled or otherwise disturbed from the stalls. The whole thing descended into farce, then (during a fight scene) fell even lower into what I can only describe as the world of Sicilian puppet theater (clash clash clang clang DRAGONS!).

We had been told there would be microintervals (for leg stretches, I assume) then a proper interval, but also that it was going to be a three hour long show. Now, I sat happily through Jerusalem and A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, but in both cases I was eager to rush back in and see what happened next. In this case, I had the opposite feeling, that of a huge relief as I gave up on the whole thing and left at the full interval. I’m sure this theater is going to be a real asset to London, but whoever picked this show needs a slap in the face with a fish, preferably one that had spoiled a bit, while being heckled by irritated audience members. I’ve got my salmon, baby, why don’t you stand a little closer?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 6th, 2014. It continues through March 30th.)

Review – Hard Rain – Above the Stag Theater

March 7, 2014

It was hard not to resist a trip to the new home of the Above the Stag theater to see the latest, dare I say it, “straight” piece by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper, the authors of the theater’s infamous gay pantos. Their Get Aladdin was the funniest panto of 2012, in part because of its cutting political pot shots. So for them to take on a play with the Stonewall Riots as its topic seemed like a natural next step.

A Hard Rain is set in a gay speakeasy (well, it’s an unlicensed bar) in Greenwich Village in the key year of 1967. Street kids (hippies and otherwise) are all over the place and drug use is common; gay people are not allowed to be served drinks legally so a place like this is their refuge. This particular bar is run by Frank (Nigel Barber), who seems to make a living off of doing things not quite allowed by the law; but with bent cops like Danny (Rhys Jennings) paid to look the other way, it’s all pretty easy to make a profit. Habitues include bartendress Angie (Stephanie Willson), homeless gay teen Jimmy (the doe-eyed James El-Sharawy), and the completely out of control Ruby (frighteningly sexy Michael Edwards), a trans Vietnam Vet who has some really crazy anger management issues. The heat is rising outside and the tempers are rising inside as the basic inequality of the treatment of gay men by the authorities becomes an issue that finally explodes.

Or does it? While this play certainly features a character who is itching to get involved in a fight, the matter of gay rights and equal treatment don’t seem to be much of an issue to Ruby. Jimmy actually seems to get more political over the course of the evening, but, while the casual discrimination that gay, bi, and trans people faced every day at this time (whether from the law, the workplace, the army, or their family) is brought up with many examples, I didn’t really feel that this was affecting the characters in a way that would lead them to riot. Ruby starts the play ready to hit anything that angers her … so getting in on any riot seems like her idea of fun.

Unfortunately, certain elements of structuring and character building – one of which is fixed for a panto and the second of which is unnecessary – seemed to be lacking in this play. The scenes were too episodic and lacked flow; the characters never became three dimensional or really evolved. Anyone of them might have made an interesting focus for a play, but none of them got it. This made me disconnected with the narrative, and I found myself struggling to stay all the way through. The bits of banter between the characters (when they were teasing each other) were certainly lively and enjoyable, but this just wasn’t enough to support the rest of the show.

My feelings aside, there’s no doubt that this play has a lot of people excited to see what they see as “their story” on stage, as the house was packed (I think it was sold out). My takeaway from this is that the Above the Stag should look at doing a “new gay plays” festival, so that all sorts of playwrights could tackle some of these topics, and give new work a chance to flourish. And I’d kind of like to see a play just about Ruby, and how you deal with being gay when you were from the South and in the army. There is a story waiting to be told.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, March 2nd, 2014. A Hard Rain continues through March 30th.)

Review – Good People – Hampstead Theater

March 3, 2014

It’s official: London has its first five star production of 2014* … and it’s a comedy. Good People at the Hampstead Theater had me guffawing and gasping nearly from the start straight through to its trim finish shortly before 10 PM. I was actually eager and excited to come back after the interval! When was the last time that happened!

I did my best to do no research whatsoever about this show before I went in, wanting to experience it completely raw – so I was very surprised to find out this show was a very modern play set in America (I finally deduced it to be Boston, a city where a really poor white, urban population is most decidedly in existence – Good Will Hunting twenty years later). The lead character is Margie (Imelda Staunton), a forties-ish mom taking care of a mentally handicapped daughter as best she can on a cashier’s income. Her friends – as long as cash is left out of the equations – are Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Dottie (June Watson), each with their own list of deadbeat relatives, whom they discuss over coffee and bingo. When Margaret finds out her old boyfriend Mike has moved back to town – and he’s now a doctor – we’re set up for a clash of titans, a veritable Look Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Abigail’s Party.

The clash between Margie and Dr. Mike is pretty colossal. People here in the UK are obsessed with class, but us Americans live in ignorance of it, because all that matters is money. And this play is about how you can “take the girl out of the trailer park but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl” as these two old friends from “Soufie” meet up across the giant gap that is their income divide. But what is even more wrenching seeing how much Dr Mike has failed to accept about his past … he’s fit into the rich culture he’s become a part of that there’s not a single person who really understands what he’s like under the skin. Except, really, Margie.

The careful depictions of how real people treat each other, showing off both their humanity and their selfishness, is what makes Good People both hysterically funny and nearly tearfully tragic. Poor people in America are working, are taking care of their kids, and are living one paycheck away from the streets. Some of them don’t make it; the discussion about Cookie, a woman who slides into homelessness after her husband leaves her, is just too telling in the way the poor woman accept that this is just something that happens.

Meanwhile we’ve got Dr Mike living it up in a world of fancy cheeses he can’t appreciate and a beautiful wife who’s assimilated far better into upper class American life as an African-American (she was, after all, born into it) than Mike ever will. He’s convinced that he’s earned it all: Margaret’s wretched life is, in his mind, because of her choices. The scene in which they argue this point … which had me on the edge of my chair … captures so much about why rich people in America … and let’s be honest, the UK … feel like they deserve what they’ve got and poor people got what they deserved.

At the end, I had laughed my head off but was holding back the tears because of an unexpected display of decency. I don’t want to say much more, but just trust me: this play was worth every penny I paid for the ticket, and if you’re lucky enough to get in, even for the top price of £32, you will consider both the money and the time well-spent. Oh, and if you don’t get in, might you consider a cash donation to a food bank? It’s what Good People should do.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on February 27th, 2014. It continues through April 5th.)

*I’m not counting Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn’t included anymore.