Archive for September, 2014

Review – Day of the Innocents (James play #2) – National Theater of Scotland at National Theater

September 22, 2014

A week after seeing The Key Will Keep the Lock (James play #1), I was practically panting to get in to see James play number two, Day of the Innocents. I’d done my usual thing of keeping an entire media blackout, though to be honest the media was filled with nothing but Scottish independence anyway (though not really talking about the play). I was ready for another two and a half hours of nation building, politics and family conflict told through a false window of history, the better to focus on the actual historical events playing out every day. (It sounded like near civil war – very appropriate given how things were happening on stage.) Forget Henry V … there was a new king in my heart, a new mythos for the 21st century.

And what I got was … well, remember how for James #1 there’s a long backstory about how James I was held prisoner for most of his youth … but we join the story as he is finally given the reins of leadership? Well, for James II, instead we get to watch the boring part, where the young king, portrayed simultaneously with a puppet and with an adult actor (Andrew Rothney – a lot of this seems to be an extended nightmare, but it bleeds over into memory), lives with the insecurity of being a pawn whose very life in in other people’s hands. When he’s not being physically manipulated (ooh the puppet metaphor, so obvious), he’s got good old Isabella Stewart to mess with his head and his “keeper,” Balvenie, making all the decisions poor James is too young to be troubled with.

The pivot of this story is really the relationship between James and Balvenie’s son, William Douglas (Mark Rowley), whom I think we’re supposed to see as a good natured buddy of the king, in no way a threat to the throne. Oddy, in his disinterest, he becomes the embodiment of what I felt these plays have been promoting as the Scottish values – independence of mind, financial self-sufficiency, pride – made ugly by cruelty and arrogance (appropriate values for the times, mind). But his change from “I just want to be your friend” to “Bugger off, Mr Supposed King Man” just doesn’t make sense. And the final conflict between him and his former friends similarly doesn’t make sense – it’s just tacked on with no exposition to explain the evolution of each of them from bosom buddies to snarling curs.

Sadly, the play spends ages showing Balvenie working with and against his son as he tries to set him up to successfully fight for kingship. But for some reason the play doesn’t spend nearly enough time working on this. Fine, James II was a boring king: but that’s no excuse to make this a boring play. If the interest is in the people that threatened his throne, then make them the center of this play. Frankly, spending nearly an hour watching a puppet whinging on stage had my sympathies swayed to the side represented by flesh and blood people. No excuses for this one, people; the third had damned well be better than this was.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 16th, 2014. It continues through October 29th.)

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Mini-review – Wolf from the Door – Royal Court (Jerwood Upstairs)

September 16, 2014

For the fan of bargain theater, it’s hard to beat the upstairs space at the Royal Court: with every seat priced at £20, it’s right on the edge of “hey it didn’t cost that much so why not” for me (depending on employment circumstances: otherwise, there is still £10 Mondays). Pretty much everything I’ve seen here has been brand spanking new, so it really gets that theater addict blood pounding: is this going to be the amazing show I talk to my friends about for years? So far this year it’s given me a five star show and that’s more than enough to convince me to buy tickets to Wolf from the Door, which, with an approximately 90 minute running time, pretty much was ticking all of my boxes. Actually, this whole “no plays I’ve seen before” pledge I made this year has been working pretty well – I’m actually seeing shows that I’m excited about!

As this play is new and the description is a bit sparse, here’s a (mostly spoiler free) synopsis: a strange young drifter (Leo – Calvin Demba) connects with a much older woman (Lady Catherine – Anna Chancellor), whose attraction to him seems highly suspicous. (In fact, the scene where they meet seems so wholly divorced from the social contract that I thought he might just bludgeon her to death right there. What does happen is far less believable.) She is a Woman On A Mission, and Leo is an integral part of the world she is trying to bring to life. And, for some reason, he goes along with it.

And now for spoilers. While “the total destruction of society as we know it” seems like an unlikely outcome for nearly anything other than ineradicable disease or war, this play was able to convince that the goals that Lady Catherine was trying to accomplish were possible, in part because the whole production had an aura of surreality (the projected and announced titles and violence; the extremely simplified set; the constant reuse of two other fairly recognizable actors in the many varied roles). But also the regular banality of the discussions kept things feeling fairly here and now: discussions about what to eat; a bank manager helping a client; the interminably long scene in a minicab that had me checking my watch.

However, I found the idea that Lady Catherine would really have roused people to do what she said unbelievable; and the motivations of Leo were nonexistent. He wasn’t supposed to entirely be real, as he was a person who claimed to not need to eat or sleep; but I couldn’t believe he would accept the role Catherine intended for him, or indeed most of the things she wanted him to do, with such utter passivity. She also constantly treated him like a servant, which I found a bit gross but also a point that weakened her character’s believability. So, while, ultimately, I was reasonably engrossed in watching this completely bizarre dystopia build itself in front of my eyes, I simply was unable to believe in it enough to get truly emotionally involved. It was Science Fiction Theater but without the beautiful cinematography or deeper commentary on what makes us tick as people. So while I felt like I got my money out of it and I know some people will enjoy it, I can only recommend it to the really hard core theater fans – or maybe people who like German style theater or dystopian lit. But it did get me out the door at 9:10 and that is always a positive.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, September 11th, 2014. It continues through November 1st. It’s mostly sold out but really that’s no reason to fret.)

Review – The Key Will Keep The Lock – James Play #1 at National Theater

September 12, 2014

A month or so ago I was reading the news from the Edinburgh Fringe, and in the midst of all of the lack of coverage of the Scottish Independence vote from the stage (the specific article said that people just became uncomfortable unless it was dealt with as a joke), I saw a mention of the James plays that utterly pulled me in. New theater about Scottish kings? I knew nothing about them, really (always looking to bone up a bit on my history), but then to make it all more attractive I read that these plays were (supposedly) really engaging – even though there were three of them? And there was going to be a transfer to London? I went immediately to the National Theater website and found space in my calendar for all three of the plays (fortunately on the Travelex $15 series). Unsuprisingly the two days when all three plays were being done in rep were all sold out – a taste, I guessed, of the word of mouth effect on these shows. Tickets secured, I did my usual thing of going into a media blackout so I could enjoy the plays as fully as possible.

At last the day of the first show arrived – when I would discover if I’d just made an expensive error of judgment. I had a sweet seat in the center stalls (love those preview prices), but I felt envious when I saw there was a whole bank of seats on the opposite side of the stage – almost the first time I could remember seeing the Olivier being used as a theater in the round. How did those people get to those seats? Were these going to be the great views? (As it turns out, while they had the pleasure/frustration the actors working among them -especially in the scenes involving the throne, which was right in the middle of this set piece – the action was 80% facing the front otherwise and I would not consider these good seats unless they were really cheap, as spending scene after scene craning all the way to the left or right or just watching people’s backs would be very irritating).

And then the show started, sound and fury galore, a four story sword poking symbolically out of the stage (it was generally quite bare except for the occasional table or bed). We were introduced to Henry V (Jamie Sives) and his long term prisoner, James (James McArdle, whom he has kept mostly locked up for some eighteen years. Henry has captured four lesser Scottish nobles – thick accents all around – whom he wants James to make an example of. But James (thicker accent, not sure how he would have kept it being locked up from the age of ten) has other ideas, about the rules of chivalry, which he wants to apply now. Henry instead decides to show James that he still has control over him, and can beat his “rule of law” with the rule of force, because James need to learn what a king must do … and that for him, what he must do is obey.

Thus we nicely have set for us in the very first the themes of this play; of James as a dreamer, of James the king, of James as a man whose psychology might just be a little twisted by the circumstances of his life. But in parallel with this story is not just the extremely human story about his relationship with Joan (Stephanie Hyam), the queen forced on him by Henry, but of the building of the Scottish nation … a historical situation made vibrant and breathing by the current independence vote. The question of Scottish identity and the relationship and difference between Scotland and England is so alive that I could practically see them as other characters in the room, with the audience responding amazingly strongly to the debate on sovereignty happening in front of their eyes, disguised as history, making it clear that the era we are living in is one in which history is being built … on the roots of ancient actions. Wow. I could only imagine what the impact must have been of The Crucible during the McCarthy hearings. It seemed so appropriate, given this, that people spoke this new play in a modern style (complete with swear words), because the words, sentiments, and emotions were those of today. This was not a history play or a history: it was a play about now.

And I loved it. I didn’t read the program notes because I didn’t want to lose any surprises, and I was practically bouncing at intermission waiting for us to get back in and get on with it. I was on the edge of my seat when Queen Joan was being threatened and laughed when her servant Meg (Sarah Higgins) told the courtiers off for bad table manners. This is the kind of modern theater that I love, excellent, confident story telling delivered by note perfect actors with a focus on human interaction and resonance beyond the play itself. I now think the price I paid for the three shows was an incredible deal and I can’t wait for my return next week. Who needs Wolf Hall: the James plays have actually delivered us living, breathing history that makes people care. Thank you, Rona Munro; job well done.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Wednesday, September 10th, 2014. It runs through October 28th and is already almost booked solid. Get your tickets now!)

Mini-review – Briefs the Second Coming – London Wonderground Southbank

September 11, 2014

I’d like to say I was very suspicious and standoffish when a friend of mine described “Briefs: The Second Coming” as “fit Australian transvestites doing Cirque de Soleil type stuff in their underpants,” but more honestly my response was much more along the lines of MY GOD HOW LONG IS IT PLAYING AND WHEN CAN I GET A TICKET? Fortunately they are booked in the Spiegeltent of the London Wonderground for nearly a month and the show is quite affordably priced at £15 quid (a seated ticket, natch), so the fact that I missed the Saturday night show because it was sold out did not mean I was doomed forever to miss this evening of louche entertainment. Instead, I got a group of people together (all men) to join me the next Saturday night and see what all of the excitement before. Was it going to be another show that utterly failed to live up to the billing and spent way too much time spinning out filler for one or two good acts?

Despite going for the cheap seats, we had completely reasonable, unobstructed chairs at the side of the stage (that later turned out to be much safer than the first two rows). I bought some raffle tickets – why not – and we curled up to our large drinks and waited for the fun to begin.

Well! And fun it was! Although there was a bit of a dry spot during a “geek boy solves Rubik’s cube,” we were generally treated to an endless bout of tumbling, juggling, silks/trapeze, and hula hooping (don’t knock it until you see someone do it wearing a sequinned change purse and nothing else) that kept the energy level high and the laughter rolling. Even the Rubik’s cube act was jazzed up (MUSTN’T MAKE BAD OBVIOUS PUN!) with some stripping (I did start paying much more attention!) and despite all of the lovely toned flesh on display, boundaries of taste were generally maintained.

Um, well, generally. And by boundaries I mean no actual penises or bollocks were on display, at least not from my angle (man on my left disagreed), but I need to be clear: a serious breach of taste did occur. This was during the act in which three of the more athletic men performed as if they were the pets of the drag queens holding their leashes, which was decidedly both hot and crossing into a certain level of sexual perversion I’m not used to seeing in the theater. AND THEN IT WENT A BIT FURTHER.

Now, this left the four of us howling with laughter, but as my friend Josh put it, “You really have to work hard to shock a room full of gay men but they judged the audience right.” We were all hysterically laughing. This left the followup acts, with body shots and water being flung everywhere (and a crocheted banana penis cover) unable to get back up to that level, but it didn’t matter. It was a great night and I could absolutely see myself coming again and again.

(This review is for a performance that took place September 6, 2014. It continues through September 28th.)

Review – Return of the Soldier – Jermyn Street Theatre

September 8, 2014

This has been the year for theatrical productions with a First World War theme – revivals of old plays (The Silver Tassie), debuts of new (Versailles), and now The Return of the Soldier this strange hybrid of an old story (by Rebecca West) and a new musical presentation (Tim Sanders and Charles Miller) has joined the milieu. Return of the Soldier marries a very modern musical sensibility to a story practically out of the pages of Edith Wharton – a young man from the upper classes (Stewart Clarke) is torn between his commitments to a woman of his class (Zoe Rainey) and his still raging love for a barmaid he fell in love with before the war (Laura Pitt-Pulford).

But piles of additional psychological layers stack up on top of this seemingly cut and dry story. First, there’s his cousin (Charlie Langham), who seems to be in love with Christopher herself. Then there’s the matter of one or two dead babies and some suppressed grief. And then there’s some really strange additional psychological stuff going on that had me wondering just what actually was going to constitute a happy ending and how in the world people of this age ever got by just pretending that they never felt anything. Frankly, Christopher was inconveniencing rather a lot of people by being honest and open: should he just shut up? From the point of view of an author writing in 1918, was the best outcome for the soldier to be a patriot? Did Rebecca West need to support the class system?

While all of these rich options were fighting for supremacy in my head, I got to listen to some very enjoyable Sondheim-esque music. Normally I complain about musicals not being … well … musical enough. I like to walk out of a musical whistling a tune. But in the case of this show, with its rather bleak story, an Irving Berlin-style romp did not seem appropriate. They could have gone for a musical style of the era (music hall tunes) but I think these looser compositions were more appropriate for the very modern considerations the plot brought forward. One notable departure was Dr Anderson (Michael Matos)’s tune “Head Master,” which seemed a very jaunty way to look at the science of trying to get people’s brains to work correctly. I enjoyed it a lot, but at the same time I enjoyed the very modern pieces that had several of the characters working out their contradicting struggles in aural harmony (while, in “real” life, their goals clash).

All in all, in the intimate space (and with the benefit of not knowing the plot or the ending), The Return of the Soldier was an extremely engaging new musical that rates at the top of the First World War shows that I’ve seen this year as well as being one of the rare shows that had me very eager to come back after the interval. It was very enjoyable as a chamber production, but with its deep psychological clashes, I think it may be headed for a larger stage before long.

(This review is for the opening night performance that too place on September 4th, 2014. It continues through September 20th.)

Mini-review – Civil Rogues – Pleasance Theater (London)

September 5, 2014

Let’s be honest: Civil Rogues is not Wolf Hall. It’s a comic look at a bitter period in English history where theater was crushed flat and people spent a lot of time killing each other (an obvious choice, yes?). The destruction of the rich theatrical ecology of the Elizabethan period was one of many of Cromwell’s goals: and, actually, it was something I’d not seen on stage before, so it had the interest of novelty. And the whole thing seems done a bit hastily and without a whole lot of effort being made in the historical accuracy vein under what I assume were the pressures of getting this puppy on the road in time for Edinburgh. God knows they skipped making any sort of proper ending!

On the other hand, this bizarre hybrid of Shakespeare in Love and The Play That Goes Wrong shares the raw love of the theater that powers both of those plays, and, combined with the rather powerful acting of most of the cast (the three “skirt” actors were all rather impressive), I found myself feeling forgiving about a certain sloppiness in the script and a lack of discipline in the language. The characters were genuinely engaging, the use of Shakespeare to move the plot forward entirely plausible, and we had to just agree that the plot only existed to create an excuse for the play in general to happen and had no relationship to reality. End result: totally enjoyable theater, affordably priced, with lots of laughs. Yeah, sure, it had a whiff of amateurism/fringeishness to it, but with an 80 minute run time, I found it called for more praise than forgiveness.

(This review is for a show that took place on Friday, September 5, 2014. It only runs through the 7th so get your booty over there.)

Mini-review – My Night with Reg – Donmar Warehouse

September 5, 2014

I’ve now seen three AIDS plays held up as classics: and of them, My Night with Reg is the only one that breaks my heart. As Is is full of rage but has a soap opera soul; Angels in America has lost all of its urgency as 9/11 made it a quaint recollection of a more innocent time. My Night with Reg, currently being revived at the Donmar, stays focused on what really matters in theater – human relationships – and slips in AIDS like a stiletto that slides between your ribs unfelt, taking your breath from you forever.

The plot, such as it is, is trivial; men gather together in a house and talk to each other about each other. Each scene is set in a nearly unchanging house; it’s difficult to tell that any time has past- in fact, the second scene seems like it may be “evening of the same day” after a dinner part, but as the conversations play out, it becomes clear that much time has passed, and while little seems to have changed, hearts are aging and memories are accumulating and the great, sad accretion of life (and death) is taking its toll on all present, no matter how handsome and witty they still seem, scene after scene.

The group of men around whom the play centers are all old college (uni in English parlance) friends, and when the get together – which happens rarely (and never with the invisible Reg) – you can see the exuberance and lust for life of the early twenties zinging out of them as they joke, dance, and sing with each other with the easy camaraderie (and hints of old lusts) that really only happen with friendships of a decade or more. You laugh a little at host Guy (Jonathan Broadbent), so pudgy and nerdy and supportive; admire sexy John (Julian Ovenden) while wondering if he actually has any heart under his perfectly sculpted exterior; and wish you could have Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) over to your party because he really is just that funny and smart. Despite this being a reunion for the men, to me it had that timeless feeling of any friendships that resume right where the left off years ago, while also having an interesting touch of British reserve in the amount of emotional honesty the various characters allowed themselves. It still had the thick lashings of sexual honesty I see (enviously) in gay men’s relationships … but their hearts stayed hidden.

Until, well, scenes two and three. Death rises, sex becomes less a sport than a grief control mechanism, and the happiest songs in the world become paeans to the dreams we’ve all had to give up on and the banal realities that have been left behind. It all became a bit like the Japanese love of cherry blossoms – beauty is so much easier to appreciate in the face of its ephemerality. And when we’re living life, we so often don’t realize that a goodbye really is an ending, that the people you see every day will suddenly just never be there again. And for a brief period of time, those lovely, loving, lovable fonts of life were being mowed down one after another and it seemed like it was never going to stop. In the face of that, all you get is a dance and maybe a singalonga and maybe somebody to keep you warm at night, but mostly what you get is the realization that we all end up alone. Even though I had to remind myself I was just watching actors go through a script, that message was still entirely real, and beautifully conveyed. It was an excellent evening and well worth the many, many time I sat there hitting F5 and hoping someone would change their minds at the last moment and decide not to go: and even at top price it was absolutely worth every pound I paid and every minute of my time.

(This review is for a performance that took place Saturday afternoon, August 30th, 2014. I spent the rest of the week wishing I had time to write it up just in case someone else who’d appreciate this play didn’t know how good it was. It closes September 27th.)