Archive for May, 2014

Review – Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be – Theater Royal Stratford East

May 29, 2014

I missed my first chance to see Lionel Bart’s “other” musical, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, when Phil Wilmott gave it a revival in 2011. But at that time, I still hadn’t heard of this Cockney Guys and Dolls. It only came to my attention in 2012, when the BBC did its special on the British musical. Somehow, growing up in America, this was one musical that hadn’t been making the rounds. Like Taste of Honey, its deep roots in British society probably didn’t win the enthusiasm of American producers – rightly so as cuddly tykes and Dick Van Dyke chimneysweeps are how Americans enjoy imagining English working class types. Real rough trade isn’t quite so romantic, what with the organized crime scene of London lacking a Rat Pack to big it up. But Bart’s songcrafting skills are unquestioned, so I was eager to catch the Theater Royal Stratford East’s show – all the better for being in a culturally appropriate East End location.

The show is a bit thin on plot – a bunch of layabout lowlifes are in hanging around in a bar, playing poker and waiting to turn tricks, bemoaning their lives. Or so it seemed to me. We’ve got a cop on the take (introduced with a great number featuring sex workers paying him off), a pimp on the make (pulling in a new girl who’s recently become homeless), and an old mobster who hasn’t seen the riches he’s been hoping for materialize. The second half is sort of about what happens when he gets a windfall and decides to make the bar “classy” – with mixed results. Let’s say that restaurant management is not his forte.

I was able to really get behind the characters (Jessie Wallace as Lil, the (ex-)gangster’s moll, had a big enough personality to fill the entire house), and the dancing was fun, and who am I not to enjoy a good singalonga? But it all seemed less than the sum of its parts. While better than just a marker for the 50s theater scene in London (especially since it was being restaged in its birthplace), I found more poignancy standing on the first floor with a group of people whose accents matched, beat per beat, those I’d heard on stage a moment ago. We were looking out a picture window at a block of cement masquerading as homes and restaurants, and the woman was telling her friends about what you used to be able to see outside of this theater – streets and people and life being lived. The theater wasn’t just a building plopped in the middle of a renovation project, it was part of a neighborhood, which has now been utterly destroyed, leaving behind, well, little more than a script and a few songs and a memory that, well, fings used to be different. Perhaps it’s time for a new musical to be written, because a lot more has been lost since this play first took the stage, and, in the current iteration, this play, which is just entertainment, simply does not any way show us how very much we have lost.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 16, 2014. It closes on June 8th.)


Mini-review – King Charles – Almeida Theater

May 23, 2014

The Almeida Theater’s debut production of Mike Bartlett’s King Charles closes soon, but, as an example of the golden age of theater writing in London, I simply must review it despite missing the best window for doing so.

Taking a philosophical question and putting it in as the core element of a work of fiction is a fantastic way of approaching “what ifs.” In some ways, it’s the motivation behind the writing of Animal Farm and of Fahrenheit 451 … for others, it’s the essence of a dry bit of writing like The Communist Manifesto or God knows how many dreary PhD publications. Forget essays, let’s look at changes to the underpinnings of concepts of personhood and politics through the eyes of theater!

This seems to be the driving force behind Mike Bartlett’s new play, King Charles. The idea is that the new king (former prince), Charles, has decided to change the balance of powers between the executive and the legislative branch; rather than rubberstamping every bill that comes his way, he’s going to use … the veto! Now, as an expert on American constitutional government, I didn’t find this shocking at all; but apparently saying no hasn’t been on the agenda for all of Elizabeth’s long reign. The so-called executive is supposed to smile and nod and say yes to anything that comes out of parliament; a situation that rather effectively destroys any sense of “balance” between these two bodies.

My mind raced madly at the ideas this raised (and Charles’ mini-furore over likening Putin to Hitler – a similarity I certainly noticed, what with the takeover of a free nation’s territory – showed that the expectation is that royalty are truly only expected to be FIGURE heads of state). What are the traditional rights of the executive role? Is this country wrongly goverened because there is no effective balance to the legistlature? What’s the point of a prime minister, anyway?

I had feared that this play would be some kind of celebrity, jokey-jokey “oh look it’s Camilla oh look it’s, um, whatever his name is, the younger brother” but instead Bartlett took the opportunity to create beautiful language (it sounded very iambic, someone send me a script!) and to flesh out gorgeous, rich characters very much “inspired by” a la Shakespeare. (I’m pretty sure no Scottish lord of any sort has ever referred to his family as “all my pretty chickens,” but it still makes for better listening.) And all of this was underpinned by Bartlett’s wonderful understanding of human motivations … especially the selfish ones.

Backed by the beautiful uncertaining of our soon to be glorious future, this play had a brilliant edge to it, like a knife sitting in silk, ready to tear. I was eager to rush back in after the intermission and see how it had all turned out. Oh brave Almeida, that has such fine plays in ‘t!

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 9th, 2014. It ends May 31st.)

Mini-review – Triple Bill (Serenade, Sweet Violets, Danse a Grande Vitesse) – Royal Ballet

May 22, 2014

When Clement Crisp has reviewed a ballet, I often think I have little to add to it. But …

I’ve barely managed to see Natalia Osipova since she’s become a regular at the Royal Ballet, but I managed to grab a single ticket for this triple bill, hoping against hope that Sweet Violets would have been trimmed and tightened since its debut. No such luck: it was as incoherent as ever, and while I thought I might be distracted by getting to see the lovely costumes close up, instead I was just … waiting. Waiting for Osipova. And wondering: who in the hell ever thought of putting Liam Scarlett side by side with Balanchine? It was like steak and Wotsits sitting on a plate together, the same jarring experience as the exhibit of Turner and Helen Frankenthaler I saw in Margate. It’s clear when you’re seeing a masterpiece for all time – and it’s ever so clear when you’re not.

Finally we got to “Danse a Grande Vitesse,” which I’d found robotic and dull when I first saw it. But somehow, with a Wotsits appetizer and the brilliant dancing of Osipova, I relaxed into this performance, with the dancers making beautiful curving motions of the trains and gears, with the odd “I am the French goddess of Victory!” moments, with the incessant Nyman score. Suddenly I had a vision: combine the choreography (and funky deconstructed train) of DGV with the costumes and pathos of the other, and you could have Zola’s La Bete Humaine. Blood, sex, death, and fast trains: it would be awesome. Thinking about this kept me highly amused for the rest of the evening – I mean, it would help the Royal Ballet recoup their investment from Violets and mean we might manage to not ever have to see it again! It was a very cheering thought.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 21st, 2014. The final performance will be May 26th.)

Review – Wolf Hall – Royal Shakespeare Company at Aldwych Theater

May 22, 2014

There is event theater and there is event theater, and for a certain sort of well-educated, well-read, upper middle class (or just upper class) Londoner, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Wolf Hall was the event they’d been waiting for, enough to pull them out of their sleepy suburbs at 90 quid a head and sell out the first month’s run of the (first half of the) Hilary Mantel double bill practically before it had opened. And there I was, surrounded by people wearing very nice clothes, laughing at all of the “in” English history jokes (“Oh that Jane Seymour! Ha ha ha!”) and British geography jokes (“Yorkshiremen eat Londoners for lunch! An endowed university in Ipswitch! Ha ha ha!) and somehow seeming very pleased that they knew how these things were going to end in the end … or, rather, in the present.

With a nearly bare set – just walls of concrete with crossed lines of light in the back (symbolizing the influence religion on everything) – the actors were left to pull magic from the air with little more than their words, some really luscious costumes, and occasional walls of flame. And personalities really came through – Henry (Nathaniel Parker), who wants so much to be liked (but perhaps confuses lust and kingly duty) – Anne (Lydia Leonard), who has a clear vision of what it takes to achieve power – and Thomas Cromwell (Ben Miles), who is unswervingly loyal and yet still very, very human.

Or that, I think, is what Hilary Mantel would have us think: for, in this production, none of these creatures comes across as human; only when informed by our memories of her book. It’s a beautiful historical pageant, full of color and movement, but devoid of real emotion. We clapped and cheered and were entertained and perhaps dazzled, but I simply was not in the least bit touched by this show. It’s a shame: there is so much in the source material that I had really hoped it would be there, and while I can’t deny the professionalism and production qualities were tops, I want to feel when I pay that much money. And I didn’t. So while this was an entertaining night out, it was ultimately forgettable, though very popular in a sort of upper class fangirl way. People who want to go to the theater to feel good about themselves and their position in life, this show is for you: if you want to learn a little something about human nature, for my money you’d do much better to see Birdland at the Royal Court.

(This show is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 15, 2014. It continues through the summer, running in rep with Bring Up The Bodies. Tickets can be bought through the RSC site or Ticketmaster but, really, just read the book unless you can get one of the £10 day seats.)

Mini-review – Birdland – Royal Court Theater

May 20, 2014

It seems almost pointless writing up Birdland given that it’s closing in less than two weeks: but I just have to stand up and say HOORAY! for a show that makes me feel like we are truly living in a golden age of theater. I can almost imagine fans of German theater saying, “Oh, but British theater is all so realistic!” or perhaps other people saying, “Oh, but this show is gloomy!” but to me, any play that makes me experience real feelings, that makes me, for example, genuinely embarrassed for actors reading a script as if I were actually listening to a real conversation between two people in a semi-public place … while, in reality, I was just watching people who were being paid to speak lines which they had said again and again night after night … WHEW!

Now admittedly there’s a bit of typecasting in putting poor old Andrew Scott in the role of yet another whiny git we’d just love to slap (as Paul, an egotistical front man for some kind of chipper pop band), but then, wow, look, there’s the utterly amazing Daniel Cerquiera just seamlessly playing so many utterly different roles … Paul’s smarmy band manager, the distraught father of a suicided groupie, and Paul’s completely grounded and rather sad dad … I mean, where has Cerquiera been hiding? He’s the kind of perfectly formed actor that the London theatrical scene seems to be exhaling through its gills, so perfect at so many roles that, even with the (mere) six actors on stage for nearly the entire two hours (I could see them! right there!) I kept thinking some other guy had shown up to do whichever role I was watching. I mean, listen to this speech Cerquiera made as the father whose daughter has died, it’s going to sound so trite but I have to quote it:

[S]he’s in my head all the time. Do you see? I feel heavy with sadness. I feel like my clothes are heavy with sadness. The physical effort of getting up in the morning is crippling to me.

I felt heartbroken listening to him say that. For God’s sake, I was just listening to an actor! On a stage that didn’t even pretend to be realistic! (Actually it was like the Old Vic’s Much Ado set was recycled by someone who was determined to make a point that it could be used in a way that was not shit, with a bonus “drowning” metaphor thrown in to make the entire experience not just a little bit more beautiful but, I have to say it, profound.) How could I lose my sense of separation? He was speaking words that were WRITTEN for him to say (by Mr Simon Stephens, and full credits for your plot twists, sir), I shouldn’t have felt a thing.

And it was all … perfect. And it wasn’t some shit celebrity rehash of Shakespeare that nobody really needed to see or put on. I was fully in the moment even when the idiot six seats over had her MP3 player go off late in the show. (I imagined throwing it into the canal surrounding the set. A fitting end, I think.)

At least, well, I can feel good knowing that this show is pretty well sold out for the whole run, like it ought to be. Five stars, baby, five stars: it doesn’t get any better than this. I can prove it with numbers, and numbers never lie.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday May 19th and cost me all of TEN POUNDS, baby. Ten pounds isn’t even real money. Well, not to Paul, anyway. Maybe to his dad. If they were actually really people, which they’re not. I think. I kind of wasn’t sure for a bit. Anyway, Birdland runs through May 31st. Please try really hard to go see it.)

Review – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – Savoy Theater

May 15, 2014

When the going gets tough, the tough get going to … musicals. Live musicals. Funny musicals. Just the day before I’d been to a riotous How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying in Walthamstow – could a big, polished West End production in any way recreate the charm and joy of a weensie yet perfect show held over a pub?

To my pleasure, my economical (bumped from third balcony to second) yet well-centered seats gave me just the sort of big-bang evening I was hoping for. The story of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was one I didn’t know … two con men (one cultured – Lawrence Jameson as played by Robert Lindsay; one low brow – Freddy Benson as played by Rufus Hound) go head to head in a Riviera resort town, betting that one of them will be first to do a big con and the other will then leave town in disgrace. It’s like a buddy comedy, only mean instead of cute, with the two men playing tricks on their cons and each other, while we in the audience laugh harder and harder. And of course the woman they choose for the big con sets it up so it becomes personal between the two guys.

I came to this show with no knowledge of the movie, so the whole thing was pretty much a surprise for me. It turns out it was much less greasy than I expected – I never anticipated that the development of the relationship between the two men would be so important to the story. (Watching the movie later, I realized that a fair amount of liberty had been taken with the source material – all the better to make a good night at the theater.) I was despairing at the combination of “hit Hollywood movie” and “Broadway songwriting talent,” expecting some Disneyfied piece of crap, but as it turns out, the songs were actually genuinely funny, with lyrics that didn’t just fill space but gave me the giggles. What went right here? And even if they kept the sets fairly light and airy, weren’t the dance numbers a laugh? OH MY GOD WAS I HAVING A GOOD TIME? There are nights when I am sure it would never happen again!

In retrospect, despite the West End ticket price, I have to say that Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has every possibility of being the kind of reliable that you turn to for a pick me up on a gray day – a bit of slapstick, a lot of dancing, and buckets and buckets of fun. And thanks to Paul in London for the heads up – without you, I would have missed out entirely!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 8, 2014. It is booking until well into the future.)

Review – The Pyjama Game – Shaftesbury Theater

May 13, 2014

I get a good feeling when I go by the Shaftesbury – it’s where I first saw Hairspray and where I laughed my head off at Rock of Ages. When I think of a big show done well, I imagine seeing it at The Shaftesbury. So when I got an invite to round out a group going to see The Pyjama Game early on I thought, why not? A thirty pound show at the Shaftesbury will probably be a screaming bargain. I could sort of remember watching the movie with my mom ages ago – Doris Day, right? – but couldn’t remember anything else about it other than it was some sort of 60s rom-com where the hero and heroine are at odds but make up by the end.

As it turns out, I found this show inexpressibly sad. Set in a sewing factory in 1950s America, the legions of reasonably paid workers represented a middle class that have been almost entirely wiped out. Union stewards who were smart and looked after theirs? Yeah, Catherine “Babe” Williams (Joanna Riding) is my kind of heroine, practically a Norma Rae in her unglamorous middle age (though nice legs) and dedication to her team. And shop buster Sid Sorokin (Michael Xavier)? He and boss man Myron Hasler (Colin Stinton) are villains, pure and simple, the people who in thirty years will fight to destroy the unions and send the work to Mexican maquiladores and then to China. The joke will be on Sorokin, though, as people like him won’t be needed, either, and the Sorokin will pocket the bucks as they slowly change the American dream from decent jobs producing decent goods to just making a buck.

Meanwhile, all of the folks singing about their pride and spirit in “Sleep-Tite” and their joy in socializing with their coworkers in “Once a Year Day?” You’re going to be reduced to working part time at WalMart and still needing welfare benefits and food stamps. Be beautiful in your petticoat dresses and cheer for what you can buy with your “7 1/2 Cents,” girls, because in thirty years your job, your shop, your union, and most likely the company you worked for will all be gone, because the government you live under has decided keeping jobs isn’t as important as making sure Old Man Hasler gets HIS money.

I found the first act slow and the “chemistry” between Williams and Sorokin both non-existent and implausible, their hook up at the end of the first act contaminated by its improbability in an age lacking good birth control methods. And when Babe said she didn’t know why she was so gung-ho about the union, I wanted to slap her. Stand up and say what counts, woman! You’re holding the line against all of these people losing their jobs and your whole town become a part of the rust belt! But no, Sid’s going to sing a sappy love song and you’re going to forget what really matters in life, and somehow hearing “Hey There (You With The Stars In Your Eyes)” is supposed to make us forget, too.

But we’re in a post industrial age, and watching a fine hoofer like Alexis Owen Hobbs burn her way through “Steam Heat” is a good distraction from crap like War Horse letting go its musicians to save a few pennies (these issues are still with us!). I perked up enough to laugh my way through the hysterical Hernando’s Hideaway, once again seduced by Hobbs’ professionalism – as a blonde, tap-dancing comedienne she was ticking my musical wishlists – but, well, the whole thing just didn’t work for me. It wasn’t happening, even in the second row. The first act needed tightening up, and, I don’t know, Sid isn’t someone I could buy Babe ever falling for. I left feeling down, even after the second act. Ah well, there’s the sizzling How to Succeed in Business on in Walthamstow and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on the Strand … you’ve been warned!

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 6th, 2014. It continues as long as it’s making money, which probably won’t be for nearly as long as ILGWU lasted in America, but at least the folks on stage have good union jobs and aren’t getting shafted like the musicians at the New London Theatre.)

Review – How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying – All Star Productions at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre

May 11, 2014

In the cost-benefit analysis of theater going, there are three items to consider: the price of the ticket, the quality of the production, and the length of the show. Sadly, “length of the show” must take into account the location of the theater, since this element ultimately figures into the painful calculus of, “Is this show so good that it’s worth losing sleep over?” For that reason, even solid houses like the Hampstead Theater, and the Royal Stratford rarely see me, as they need to have a five star production AND an affordable price before I even consider making the trip.
Another house that suffers from distance from the center (for me) is Ye Olde Rose and Crown, situated rather unfortunately at end of the Victoria line furthest from my home. Sure, it’s zone three, I live in zone three, but we’re talking a full hour’s travel here, likely only doable on a non-school night.

And yet, this year I’ve seen them do several very good revivals of lesser-known silver age musicals with performances and production quality that went far beyond what I expected of a “pub theater.” Fun costumes, good choreography, and great singing on top of an already strong score and book? It’s an irresistible combination, so much show that when I found out they were doing a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – which I’ve never seen before – during a month when I had almost completely locked my schedule thanks to two bank holidays and the Lufthansa Early Music Festival. Gah! When could I go? How could I make the time? There seemed to be no option but to *gasp* go on a Wednesday night. At least the Tube strike had been called off.

After the disappointment of the Pyjama Game a night before, I can’t tell you what a relief it was to spend the night watching a show where I was eager to go back after the interval. Of course, the producers had picked a really good script – How to Succeed is unapologetically comic, but not because of silly accidental meetings or an overly forced romance. The story of a young man (J Pierrepont Finch – a fresh-faced Adam Pettigrew) trying to become an executive by following the advice of a self-help book is ripe for laughs, and the script takes full advantage of the opportunities presented (rather like Mr Finch himself). We have a love interest (Rosemary – the winning Alyssa Nicol) who dreams of keeping his dinner warm when he works late, and a giggling, smarmy villain in Bud Frump (Josh Wilmott), the boss’s nephew, who’s always willing to call Mother when things don’t go his way. The machinations of the three of them – Finch trying to get his next leg up, Bud and Rosemary trying to get Finch – keep the action moving forward nicely. Then add a bombshell (Hedy LaRue – the gigglicious Amy Burke) who’s trying to seduce Finch while keeping the big boss, J.B. Biggley (Mark Turnbull) happy – well, there’s lots of conflict, broken hearts, bad behavior, and fun for us lucky folks sitting in the audience to enjoy.

The songs, while not being as well known as those from Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, are comedy classics – “Coffee Break” (in which the entire staff goes mad because there’s no more coffee), “A Secretary is Not a Toy” (obvious) being excellent examples. They’re helped along by a fully engaged triple-cast backing cast, amongst whom I really enjoyed Nicholas Devlin, who gave each of his characters personality and quirks – not an upstager but one of many shamelessly hamming it up. It worked great for me – I love having something interesting to see no matter where I look when a big dance number is going on. And we got lots of those – don’t ask me how they fit so much into such a small area, I thought the dancers were going to bounce off of the lights!

Since I was new to the show, I had no idea what was going to happen in the second half, and I rushed back to take my seat. Then suddenly it was 10:30 and we were all saying our goodbyes, and I couldn’t help but wonder where the time had gone – I’d been having so much fun that I just lost track of time passing. I ddn’t regret for a minute the long hike home or being a bit groggy the next day – I was completely cheered up and practically tap danced my way back to the tube. Now this is what going to a musical ought to be like!

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on May 7, 2014. It continues through May 24th.)

Mini-review – Venice Preserv’d – The Spectator’s Guild at Paynes & Bothwick Wharf, Greenwich

May 9, 2014

It was hard to be anything but charmed by the website for Venice Preserved, what with its hints of carnival atmosphere and promise of a promenade experience. But I was confused about where it was happening – at the Cutty Sark? At a wharf? At a pub? – as well as the start time (showing up at the Cutty Sark at 7:30 is not the way to go, and the actual performance location is woefully poorly signed, if a fairly brief walk from Deptford Station). I was clear that we were to spend part of the time outside, but as a part of a Punchdrunk-style spectacle of a story revealed through hints and deduction, I was up for it.

What I was not ready for, however, was standing in the rain while a revenge tragedy was performed by a cast of overenthusiastic recent graduates. Yeah, sure, we were being moved around from place to place, but I loathe revenge tragedy. And when it’s being shouted at you and yet still struggling to make it through the wall of umbrellas, well: I noticed a point where the gang went left and, well, we went right … and left. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t stand it anymore.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 1st, 2014. It continues through June 7th.)

Mini-review – Let The Right One In – Royal Court at the Apollo Theater

May 6, 2014

It’s been a few months since the very sold out production of Let the Right One In closed at the Royal Court. I’d been unable to get tickets for it during the run, but that was in great part my fault. It was December, I was in a holiday/panto mood, and I wasn’t entirely sure where blood and vampires fit in to my general vibe. Once I’d had a friend assure me there wasn’t all that much blood in it (and it was rather good), it was too late to buy tickets, and I missed out. Ah well, by then I already knew it was going to transfer, and when tickets came up on Travelzoo for £15 during the first weeks of the run, I grabbed a pair and was pleased to see I was upgraded to stalls seats upon arrival at the Apollo. Sadly, this seemed in part due to the tube strike going on, and I found myself feeling antsy wondering if the nearly 2 1/2 hour running time was going to mean I got home around midnight or later.

What I wasn’t counting on, however, was that I was going to find the production left me squirming in my chair uncomfortably in a way that encouraged me to heed caution’s call and run for the border at the interval. The first scene had too, too much blood in it for me, and was done in a way that, well, probably maximized horror/gore/terror levels. It’s vampires, right, so therefore it must be bloody and scary? Well, not really – it’s a directorial choice. I hadn’t seen the movie so I was going in completely unprepared and, frankly, human execution is the thing of which nightmares are made for me.

Then, well, there was the question of adults playing child actors. Yeah, sure, one of them is a vampire, but that doesn’t entirely excuse the wooden acting – I just couldn’t buy it. It seemed strained. She seemed … straining. LIke she was constantly sitting on the can, secretly, while performing. And the entire set up seemed too literally to follow how scenes are set up for a movie rather than a structure that would work for a play – it felt like I was watching “the movie reenacted on stage” rather than an adaptation that focused on the elements of the original work that made compelling live theater.

Anyway, between being fully grossed out by all of the blood, distanced by the acting, and left with the feeling that I was just watching a live action movie, I decided that if I really cared about the ending, I could get the DVD. And I did make it home by ten, and I felt like I’d got my money’s worth and would be best served by getting a full night’s sleep as well. Fans of the movie, fans of horror will probably enjoy this play; I enjoyed being in bed at my normal time.

(This review is for a partial performance watched on April 29, 2014. It’s continuing through September.)