Archive for June, 2014

Review – Incognito – Bush Theater

June 4, 2014

Who wasn’t left gobsmacked by Nick Payne’s Constellations? Writing a play that deals with the mutability of human relationships, the transience of life, and esoteric science seems a Herculean feat; to have it then be the kind of thing that made even the most jaundiced theater goers (me and OughtToBeClowns) cry, well, it doesn’t even seem possible. But it happened, and it’s kept me going to everything he’s done since, both the poignant and the, well, merely entertaining. Where would Incognito fall? I wasn’t sure, but I went ahead and bought tickets long before it opened, as I didn’t want to miss out. And hey! It meant I finally got to see the Bush Theater, which I’d been hearing about for ages but not attending as they’re really a hike from Tooting.

Incognito is one of those stories that is made up of several stories sliced together, with a few actors (four) playing about twelve or so roles. I was unsure about the timelines – some things appeared to be in the present, some had to be in the past – the 70s? Older? – and as the cast didn’t change clothes, I couldn’t really work it out. The accents were spot on, though, especially for the American characters, so I had little difficulty keeping track of who was who once they started talking – but when was when, now that is only becoming clear now that I’m sitting here with the script-program in my hands.

The actual individual threads aren’t particularly compelling – you see a scientist accused of infidelity and yet it seems trivial, and you should really care – but the bubbling connection between them, of what it is that constitutes human identity, is presented clear and gleaming like the head of John the Baptist, and taking that in and experiencing what it means, not to the characters but to yourself as a person, is what I think this play intends us to do. I, for one, embraced the task wholeheartedly, in part because it’s something I’ve been looking at my whole life. What makes us who we are? How do we define ourselves? Is it our brains? Is it our work? Is it all, in fact, an illusion? One character, a research psychologist, asserts that our brains take the chaos of the many moments that are our existence and choose to make an order out of them; that they practically have to in order for us to keep our sanity. (The common metaphor, as show in this New York Times article on free will, is a monkey riding a tiger – it thinks it’s driving but the tiger is making the actual decisions about where they go.) What happens, then, when the order breaks down, when we can’t make them relate? Do we recover? Do we lose it?

These questions are brought most vividly to life in the scenes featuring Henry the amnesiac. He meets (seemingly) the same people over and over again, forgetting their conversations about five minutes after they start. Wuth the cast not aging, we can’t tell if time is passing, and Henry doesn’t seem to, either: but he does notice when his wife disappears; later, we are told he has spent some fifty years constantly asking after her because he cannot remember she has died. You think this could maybe seem like a blessing, but for me the thought hit like a knitting needle in the heart; his grief hit anew every day. And on the days when no one would tell him what happened, he missed her all day long.

In the end, some of the strands wind together, but the sense of heartbreak and my feeling that we”re all just sad monkeys desperately fighting against the randomness of the universe with all the power of out little monkey brains would not go away. An excellent play, and one which well rewarded my trip to the wild, wild West (of London).

Mini-review – Ushers: The Musical – Charing Cross Theater

June 3, 2014

I’ve been intending on seeing this show for ages, in part because the charismatic Ralph Bogard (of Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens) was in it, but I completely missed it during its initial run at the Hope Theater thanks to serious panto conflict. Thankfully, it got a transfer to the suitably divey Charing Cross theater, but its culty, late night start time (10PM!!!) was keeping me away, despite the offer of comps. Argh! Finally, though, Ushers became the main show rather than a sideshow attraction, and with a completely sensible 8 PM start time I was finally able to visit (sadly Ralph had moved on to the Globe, which he no doubt sees as a step up but which I deeply regret). I was more than happy to pay full price (seriously, £15 tickets are right in my sweet spot) for what I was hoping would be a fun night out.

And, it turns out, this was jolly – finally, a comedy with jokes I can get! The fun lasted well beyond the first song (about what it’s like being an usher), with references to the West End Whingers, current popular musicals, universal audience shortcomings, and the insular world of theatrical luvviedom. We had at least three plots going on, one of them a really poignant one for the performing arts crowd – how do you balance a career that requires travel with a romantic commitment? – and I was caught up in the backstage machinations of the house manager as he attempted to bully or sexually harass pretty much every member of the team. The choreography wasn’t really at a West End level of polish, but it was more than suitable and added to the comedy nicely. Frankly, this was a better executed show than Pyjama Game – and it certainly had heart …. miles and miles and miles of heart … miles and miles of Roxie Hart! Er, well, I think I’m taking the trope just a little to far, but you get what I mean. Come to Ushers: The Musica when you want to forget about your troubles and have a laugh – in that, it succeeds as a perfect little musical for even a hardcore West End burnout like me.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday May 28 2014. It continues through June 6th.)

Review – Handbagged – Vaudeville Theater

June 3, 2014

I wasn’t sure what to expect of Handbagged, the play about Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth, other than it looked to be a two hander (wrong!) and funny. So when I was contacted with a request for blogger feedback from a publicist, I was pretty pleased – things have been a bit grim in Webcowgirl-land the last three weeks and I was in dire need of a good laugh. I mean, I had no idea why the thought of these two women was supposed to be humorous (although “So Maggie Thatcher and Queen Liz walk into a bar” does makes me giggle) or even under what circumstances they would have come into contact (it was based on actual events? – shock!), so there was a leap of faith involved. I’ve done the Life in the UK test but Handbagged assumed a level of knowledge beyond what I, not born English, possessed.

So, factual basis: not only does the PM go to the queen and ask for “permission to form a government” after the election, but apparently the traditionally have some kind of weekly catchup as well. Now, I’d been a tiny bit exposed to this from seeing The Queen, but this is all from the post-Thatcher era and I wasn’t entirely sure how much the interaction of the queen and the PM as depicted in this movie represented reality at all. That said: how much does anything that happens in the palace represent reality? It seems as likely a topic for comedy and satire as any; theatrically, King Charles showed there’s much to be explored in the workings of a monarch in modern times (as opposed to the rather more active workings of historical times).

The play itself is a story told on two sides, that of the queen and of Thatcher; but it’s also told from two points in time, that of the near-present (maybe five years ago), with a gray-haired monarch and “elder statesman” Thatcher, and their “actual” selves at the time of the events. Their older selves correct their younger selves’ mistakes and laugh (or harrumph) at their stupidity – and by “their” I mean of both of their younger selves. I found the imagined evolution of each of their perceptions very interesting – how the queen had grown, perhaps, more disillusioned; and how Thatcher grew, I think, more rigid – and in some ways simply failed to evolve at all, parroting exactly the same things at her height as she does in her retirement.

Fleshing all of this out are two other characters, originally a butler in the palace and Thatcher’s husband (I’d never heard of him before), who wind up playing many varied roles: Ronald and Nancy Reagan, President Kaunda of Zambia, and, well, themselves, as actors with opinions. These two do a lot to fill in the gaps in my historical knowledge of the times – although addressed at the “young folks in the audience who weren’t even alive at this time,” it was helpful to me as a person who, while born, wasn’t really reading international news.

In the end, I feel like I was both educated and entertained, although the whole thing was done with such a light touch that I never felt lectured to. And look: a play in which there are four roles for women in their fifties or older! Really, the only thing I needed to make this night perfect was a cream tea at the interval: it was a very enjoyable night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thurday, May 29th, 2014. It continues through August 2nd, 2014. As I researched this, I found more an more that the events that took place outside of “the audience” all really seem to have happened – i.e. per this article – which makes me enjoy the play even more.)