Archive for December, 2014

Review – Beauty and the Beast – Theater Royal Stratford East

December 30, 2014

After a week with three fringe pantos, I finally headed out to a mainstream one – the Stratford panto. I was particularly enthused about it because it features Ralph Bogard, an actor I’d been following on Twitter since his star turn in the Leicester Square Theater Saucy Jack. (The year before a fellow Space Vixen had wound up in the Greenwich Panto as the heroine – proving, in my mind, what a great cast it was.)

But I was curious about what to expect. Panto is a constantly evolving art form, so while old favorites like Dick Whitttington and Aladdin are still getting plenty of stage time, theatres are also breaking in new stories – in this case, Beauty and the Beast. Per Andrew Pollard, author of the Greenwich pantos, this is in part due to the Disney effect, where fairytales they have made films of will suddenly have a new popularity with the panto-age viewing public. It was Disney’s movie that led to the first stagings of Snow White, after all, so it’s almost a tradition of its own. But even knowing you have a primed audience doesn’t tell you what you need to do to turn the source material into a show that works. Birmingham Royal Ballet nicely adapted it, but as a ballet, with the lush sets, drama and (of course) dance that a ballet audience would expect. But how to turn it into a panto? This is an interesting arena for creativity: if you read the story of Aladdin in The 1001 Nights, you may notice there is no Wishy Washy’s laundry, and similarly no Buttons in the original Cinderella. So Theater Royal Stratford East is taking on a show with only the barest whispers of tradition about it. It needs a beauty, a beast, a rose, and…. a candy factory? A dame? An evil witch? What about the selfish sisters? My panto expectations were unset, but I (and the rest of the audience) was ready to come along for the ride.

For this Beauty, the plot is as follows: Belle (Helen Aluko), her father (Minal Patel) and his sister (our dame, called, bizarrely, Giselle – Michael Bertenshaw) have washed up on the shores of Stratenford, Hingerland (get it?) without a penny to their names. They are forced to take jobs in a candy factory. Its owner, the scheming, selfish Mr Choakum (Ralph Bogard), decides that Belle is just the woman he needs to set himself up socially. This drama goes on for so long that it seems that there will never be any sort of fairy tale happening at all: there’s certainly no sign of any of the story’s original elements other than a marionette dumb show that seems completely unrooted (the cast never again appears in the guise of a family of puppeteers in any case).

Belle’s father goes to seek his lost boat and winds up in a magical palace where a rose appears along with a cast of strange creatures all under an enchantment, and we seem to finally be getting into our fairy tale. The rose is plucked, a beast appears (Vlach Ahston), the daughter offers herself in exchange for her father’s freedom, and the story is rolling. But it veers off again with a villain (required by panto tradition if not the source material): the witch who enchanted the beast (the rather glamorous Antonia Kemi Coker), who, with her daughter (Allyson Ava-Brown), wants to ensure the story has a bad ending. Are they successful? “Oh no they’re not!” is the only possible answer as panto rules are now in play; but the victory over materialism that is the triumph of the original story is transferred from the non-existent sisters to the post-transformation prince in a manner I found not satisfying.

In general, this evening has a bit of a budget feel to it. The costumes are quite simple – the dame only gets three – though with a touch of imagination (a Dia de los Muertos/Frida Kahlo look for the good guys, and a Princess Mononoke feel to the Beast). While the pop-up storybook look for the castle is charming and appropriate, it lacked a depth and attention to detail that might have made it truly enchanting. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast, which toured in London this year, was a visual feast, and more magic would have been nice for this production. The songs seemed perfunctory and lacking in emotion. And, overall, there were absolutely none of the political jokes which previous Stratford pantos have delivered so well. Did a memo go out warning that Art Council funding would be cut if any complaints were made? Panto is a wonderful way to poke fun at the powers that be, but the opportunity was entirely missed.

Fortunately, the cast was very enthusiastic and took genuine pleasure in delivering a positive experience. I was especially delighted with Mr Choakum, a sleazy amalgamation of Caractacus Potts and Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, manically driven and not quite right in the head (villains are always so fun). Aluko had a lovely voice and the group of storybook characters working for the Beast – Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Piggy, and Baby Bear – added a lot of flavor to the proceedings. And who can argue with a panto driven by an urban beat? While this show needed more magic, Beauty and the Beast seems a good show to take the family and radiates a genuine London sensibility. However, the script itself seemed really unsettled and lacked the firm structure that underlies so much panto humor. I don’t think the candy factory and pasted in Auntie really make for a winning script for this fairy tale, but its twists at the end did add interest.

This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on December 10, 2014. It continues until January 17th, 2015.)

Tags – Beauty and the Beast, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Helen Aluko, Minal Patel, Michael Bertenshaw, Ralph Bogard, Vlach Ahston, Antonia Kemi Coker, Allyson Ava-Brown

Review – Snow white and the Seven Dwarves – Richmond Theatre

December 24, 2014

I have to say, if I’d known this show was a nearly complete rehash of the Wimbledon panto of two seasons back, I’m not sure if I would have bothered making the trip to Richmond to see it again. Jerry Hall is not my idea of a showstopper celebrity (mine are all actual actors), though the show itself was enjoyable. However, the jokes have been kept nearly entirely intact and an entire pastiche of Britain’s Got Talent that was witty (albeit at a panto level) two years ago is now as past its best buy date as if it were a particularly pungent set of French cheeses … from 2012. And what the f**k was up with them showing ADS before the show? If I’d known (and been free to go), I would have just walked the fuck out. If ATG thinks a captive audience means they’re going to start wasting my time with pre-show ads, I won’t be visiting their theaters again … ever. ATG YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

But as it turns out, you take the powerful acting talents of our height-challenged cast members and add a really strong wicked queen to the mix, and suddenly what you’ve got is a Snow White that’s actually better than the original. Jerry Hall is a natural as the Wicked Queen with a face only money can buy (at her age) and long blonde hair with that peculiar trashy texture I associate with heavy bleaching. Let’s just say she seemed very much a construct of magic. But she’s just what you want in a Panto baddie, with a rich voice, a genuine swagger, and a confident line delivery that makes it easy enough to forgive the fact that she’s not performing the singing live. Hall is also comfortable in the Anglicized dialogue: though she may be unsure as to what a chav is exactly, she didn’t struggle to say Chiswick and was certainly aware of what a football club is. Hall also had a lot of good jokes about her life (there’s a lot of tabloid gossip to cover) and seemed to enjoy herself – making her all the more fun to boo. And she rocked her slit-to-the-hip glittery gowns.

Unfortunately, if you’ve seen the previous outing of this Snow White, there isn’t a lot new here, as most of the songs are recycled (although Pharrell William’s “Happy” makes an obligatory appearance). But with the addition of a sparkling hot Wicked Witch, it’s now a panto with all cylinders firing, including some very on-topic jokes (the one about wasting time playing Candy Crush was especially funny) and first rate costumes and sets. It’s impossible to not enjoy the scenes with the dwarves, who represent a solid swathe of acting talent I feel honoured to see on stage. The highlight of the evening is still their arrival at their cottage to a medley of Madness songs (“Welcome to the House of Fun” and “Our House”) that made me giggle all the way to my toes. Is it good enough to justify the Richmond admission prices? I assume the answer is yes if you live in the neighborhood already: but for pure entertainment value, you’re going to get funnier and fresher at Greenwich or Hackney, and if you can travel, I’d highly advise you make the effort to catch these instead of this slightly stale production.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on December 11th, 2014. It runs until January 11, 2015.)

Review – Mother Goose – Hackney Empire

December 23, 2014

After eleven months of heavy duty theater watching, I approached the Christmas season somewhat fearfully. I had agreed to review five shows in two weeks; on top of the shows I said I’d see with friends, I was looking at 14 shows in 12 days: six of them pantos. But you know what? It was like TWO WEEKS OF CHOCOLATE after a year of eating health food. December has been MY CHRISTMAS TREAT TO ME. Sure, no normal person would want to see three pantos a week (or more) for the entire month of December, but I LOVED IT!

And what panto did I want to see at the end of the second week? Hackney Empire! Because the whole point of the Christmas season panto-ganza is that I HEART PANTO and I wanted to see the BEST PANTO IN LONDON and after seeing five other pantos I was warmed up to it! I had had five appetizers and I was was ready for the main course (and had paid appropriately and invited friends)! And I was even more ready for it because Clive Rowe had been taking a star turn at the National last year and even though Suzie McKenna’s writing is good, having a dame like Clive really changes the dynamic of a panto. So Friday night and bring on Mother Goose!

Storywise, this Mother Goose is about the dangers of greed. At the beginning, Mother Goose is in danger of losing her house because she can’t pay the rent; but when she gets a goose that lays golden eggs (a goose that apparently has no idea what her new owner had been doing with her previous geese), her sudden wealth makes her avaricious. Of course, who doesn’t want to her Clive singing “Goldfinger” and walking around in glamorous gold ball gowns, but Ms Goose wants to be young and beautiful as well and is seduced by the evil fairy into taking a bath in a supposed “fountain of youth” … all in a plot to steal the goose.

Plot, however, is not the reason I go to panto. I go because I love to laugh. And with a master performer like Clive Rowe, this is pretty much guaranteed. He teases the audience mercilessly, ad lib on stage until the other performers forget their lines, and manages to make a hat constructed of goose eggs seem like a perfectly normal thing to wear. Of course, what we also get are scripted jokes (bad puns for the kids, innuendo and politics for the adults), fun dance numbers (Hackney always seems to slip in some tap dancing and I, for one, wholly approve) and the truly fantastic voices of all of the members of the cast. Good witch Sharon D Clarke could be doing concerts and instead we get the pleasure of listening to her serenade us while wearing wings. The whole things comes together so perfectly that, once again, I had tears rolling down my face because I was having such a good time. What ever have we done to deserve a panto as good as Hackney puts on every year? I think I’m just going to have to leaves some extra cookies out for Santa on Christmas eve, because he gave me everything I could have asked for with this one.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 12, 2014. It continues through January 4th.)

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk – Greenwich Theater

December 20, 2014

As the lights darkened inside the Greenwich Theater, my companion turned to me and whispered, “Is this one of those pantos starring some sort of washed up soap star?” “No,” I said, “That’s not really what they do here.” “Oh,” she said, “do you mean they actually hire people who can act?” “Yes,” I said, “and they can sing and dance, too.”

And yes, for it was the annual Andrew Pollard panto extravaganza, a.k.a. the Greenwich Panto, this year manifesting itself as Jack and the Beanstalk. Looking at the fairly simple set (front drop with snowy village; town consisting of two angles with a well), you couldn’t help but notice the difference between this and the glitter-ganza of the Richmond panto. Twenty courtiers, including acrobats? Here we had about six townspeople in total, all of whom looked like they may not have quite graduated from acting school yet. And with all of the extra curliques taken off, we’re forced to focus on what is in front of us; a simple, jolly setting for having a good time. We are told jokes old (the one about Jack’s father being squashed is at least 50 years long in the tooth) and new (the dame says when she knocked on the castle door, she said she was from UKIP “and they let me right in”), rehash physical comedy routines that are still just extremely giggle inducing (the rocking, farting couch just slayed me), and get to have a singalonga. The height of excitement (for me) for the evening was the end of act one, when the whole cast (including Daisy the cow puppet, hysterical and so adorable) came on stage to do an updated “Bohemian Rhapsody” with lyrics that cunningly mirrored the original while making it clear Jack was just going to have to climb that beanstalk. It was really worth the price of admission and a moment of pure panto madness, the kind I wait for all year.

Some time during the middle I asked, “So is this a good panto or a bad panto?” and my friend said, “There is no good or bad in panto: they are all inherently panto.” Well, some pantos are more panto than other, and if you want one that’s going to have you laughing, singing, and wiping the tears away, I highly advise a visit to Greenwich this Christmas season. And don’t feel too bad for Alim Jayda: I think he loves being a baddie.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 18th, 2014. It continues until about January 11th.)

Review – The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – Zoonation at Royal Opera House

December 16, 2014

Magic at Christmas, to me, is having a company I follow worshipfully present an adaptation of a literary work I adore. No, Matthew Bourne is doing the same old same old at Sadler’s Wells (although the Royal Ballet is freshening things up by not doing the Nutcracker this year). No, ZooNation, who had me out of my seat and cheering to Some Like it Hip Hop and laughing and smiling with their Wizard of Oz have decided to tackle Alice in Wonderland. Getting two tickets together was nearly impossible, but the Royal Opera House‘s generous returns policy (and my persistent use of F5) finally paid off and a few days after opening night I was there (for a bizarrely timed 5PM Saturday start – never seen a show at that time before!).

Before I get into the dance, let me talk a little about the overall setting, which starts in the lobby of the Linbury. It’s set up like a tea party is going on, with tea pots on the tables, and there is a Mad Hatter’s picture booth where you can try on different headwear and take a photo. There are also a series of riddles written around the walls (tied into a prize giveaway). It’s all really fun and involving, although I really doubt the piece is entertaining enough for the 6 year olds I saw in the audience – 10 and over would be better. You’ve been warned.

The story, such as it is, is that strange Dr Ernest (Tommy Franzen) has been hired at a rather bizarre madhouse to lead group therapy sessions for an extremely deranged set of people. They aren’t deranged because collectively they represent the characters of Alice in Wonderland; no, they seem each to have their own quirk which needs to be dealt with. These quirk are expressed in a series of solo dances that take their greatest flight with the extremes of the Cheshire Cat (Duwane Taylor), a man who arrives in a straightjacket and, bursting it, is able to turn the external world into a flickering, blue lit chamber of extreme dub. But the highlight of these is the one duet, between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Rowen Hawkins and Ross Sands), whose high energy, Sumo-esque, belly slamming dance duel just rocked the house. I couldn’t have cared less that these two are so peripheral to the main story; watching them helicopter spin and bounce off of each other, I was leaping out of my chair with excitement – only no I wasn’t, because I was in the Linbury and most of the audience was only able to clap politely, not roar and cheer like I thought we should have been. Still: awesome.

And then it was act two, in which the mentally broken Ernest is taken to a tea party in Wonderland to see if the various people can put him back together again. This involves dancing across the table, getting a few lucky audience members in hats and jackets and right next to the action, flips and spins and overall wildness building to a conclusion that had us all clapping – Ernest rejects the clinicians (who had been hiding between the start and finish as our very talented musicians) and becomes one with Alice’s crew. Only … whoa, there were the rest of the audience, still sitting down politely, completely visible in transverse staging in all of their glued-to-their-seatsness. PEOPLE THIS WAS AWESOME HOW COULD YOU NOT RESPOND BETTER? All I can say is, me, I was thrilled to bits to get to see this great show in such an intimate environment, and I can’t wait for a chance to see it again, preferably at the Peacock and with a crowd of unrestrained people who will give it the roars of enthusiasm it deserves. I loved my trip down the rabbit hole! My only regret is a few of the Royal Ballet dancers didn’t get stuck in while ZooNation is in residence – I think the cross-pollination would have done both side marvels – and taken this show utterly over the top.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 13, 2014. It continues through January 3rd. A few tickets keep becoming available so try looking now, you might get lucky!)

Review – Neil Bartlett’s A Christmas Carol – Metal Rabbit at Old Red Lion

December 15, 2014

Christmas is here! That means mince pies and pantos and paper crowns and presents! Lots and lots of presents! Spending money and getting things and STUFF and eating and drinking too much and fun!

And that’s it, right?

Or … maybe there’s a little something more to it.

The little bit more is posited in Charles Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol,” which I try to see at least once a year. Its message, which is, in part, that the poor will (probably) always be among us and that caring for them is actually a duty of being human, is one I find extremely relevant these days. As libertarianism, Ayn Randism, and other isms look out upon the poor and label them “scroungers” who deserve what they get, I can’t help but think this Victorian tale sounds as if it could have been written by a modern day Swift who wants to show us the ugliness underlying our opinions.
Christmas Carol

It’s hard not to see how these many adaptations have glammed it up and emphasized the ghosts and the noise and fun of this story: but, thankfully, in this production at the Old Red Lion we get a chance to see the story stripped down like an old piece of furniture: the knots and burls, the joins and the texture all brilliantly visible without layers of paint between us and it. We have six actors: a Scrooge (Alexander McMorran, weep that he does not sing more) and five others, and no Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come at all. The actors move fluidly from role to role, with only Scrooge staying the same.

The effect, in this small theater, is quite intense. We are forced to use our imagination, to see snow in tossed paper, coins in clinked chain, and generosity in handfuls of tinsel. It is a very effective Empty Space aesthetic, which comes home to me most painfully in two scenes. The first is the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner, which is a puffed up paper bag which the five of them tear to bits; their Christmas pudding is revealed, with great to-do, to be an even tinier paper bag, perhaps the size of a fist. It’s all so pathetic, the desperate scrabblings of a family who almost never get to have meat, and who won’t have more than a teaspoon of pudding each: I couldn’t help but think of that damned Baroness who said just a few days ago that poor people don’t eat well because they don’t know how to cook. Even Scrooge is horrified by just how little the Cratchits have to go around, but at least he’s not blaming their want on poor culinary skills.

Later we come to the scene where Scrooge sees a dead man stripped of his burial garments, to his horror. Normally this is done with Scrooge on the side with the Future Ghost watching a fake corpse in a bed, but in a “do less with more” moment we have Scrooge himself lying on the floor, his trousers and jacket being pulled off of him (he hasn’t been in his nightgown as is usual) by human scavengers who praise each other and vilify the man they are denuding. Scrooge’s paralysis, fright, and horror during this scene are palpable; and to have him end the moment wearing just his long johns physically shows us where Scrooge has come to mentally. His walls of protection, his emblems of status, have been taken from him, and now he is but a man, who must consider who he is in light of how he behaves toward other people. He has discovered not just that he is unloved and unwanted, but that he is a source of misery for others; and, indeed, that by his actions he could become far more than just a person who has put yet a bit more money in the bank. He now wants to create something of real value, something that holds meaning even when you stand alone and nearly naked; and to do this, he must act to care for his fellow man. He has been transformed; and in the 70 tight minutes of this show, it is difficult to imagine how more junk or people could have expressed this better. I can only hope that Baroness Jenkin herself might realize that instead of blaming the poor for their struggles, she should try taking direct action to alleviate poverty: to be a little less Marie Antoinette and a little more “God bless us every one.”

(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on Saturday, December 13th, 2014. It continues through January 3rd.)

Guest review – White Christmas (the West End musical) vs White Christmas (the movie) – Dominion Theater

December 8, 2014

Good friends and good shows … it’s a combination impossible for me to resist at Christmas. So when one of my best friends invited me to see White Christmas at the Dominion Theater, I immediately said yes. Afterwards, we got into a lively discussion about how this production compared to the movie we both love. With a little encouragement, I was able to convince her to take her extensive knowledge of the movie and really go through the changes between the original and the stage production … for the benefit of the other White Christmas fans out there who want to know whether or not they should go. So without further ado … Aahhhamy!

To say I’m a fan of White Christmas the film would be an understatement. I grew up watching this film at least once every Christmas for as long as I can remember. It is one of my mom’s favorite Christmas films and one that I grew to love as a favorite as well. It is a film I can happily watch start to end and then watch all over again. I wanted to dance like Judy, sing like Betty, crack jokes like Phil, and listen to Bob croon all day.

Now enter White Christmas the Musical playing here in London to which when I saw the posters on the tube advertising the coming show my heart did a little skipped beat and I had to go see it.

Now I know that when a film is adapted to stage, you expect there to be some plot changes in order to make the production better suited to the stage. I also know that Crosby & Clooney’s shoes are not easy ones to fill when it comes to song. I was gauging my expectations as the stage show wasn’t going to be the film that I loved but I hoped it would at least be a respectable tribute to my beloved classic.

To overview, there were bits I loved, bits I hated, and bits I understood why they changed, and while it was a fun experience overall, it was definitely not as good as version as the film I love.

The most obvious change would be the swap of several of the numbers from the film for other Berlin songs. In absence were “I’d Rather See a Minstral Show”, “Mister Bones”, “Mandy”, and “Choreography” which were replaced with “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy”, “I Love a Piano”, “Falling Out of Love Can Be Fun” but with only a couple done as performance numbers. “Gee I Wish I was Back in the Army” made a brief appearance for a whole bar at the start and that was the entire nod it got. A few other Berlin numbers made it into the show as well to be remixed with existing numbers from the film, particularly “How Deep Is the Ocean” sung with “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” which felt a bit wrong to me.

My biggest pain point was the change in dynamics of the relationships between the four main characters as none of the relationships seemed to muster a believable dynamic. Bob & Phil felt more like colleagues than the close friends they were in the film. Betty & Judy were a very defined older and younger sister in the film but on the stage it just felt like they were just BFFs. When paired off, Bob & Betty felt a bit forced and lacking. Though perhaps that was because their relationship in the stage show took back seat to that of Phil & Judy who seemed to always be on stage together whereas in the film the whole driver behind their getting together was as a sham to get Bob & Betty together before it turned into a real one.

While looking at the characters, there were some changes to the characterization of the supporting characters from the film to stage. The stage version General was fun and while not quite the stoic version of the film, I didn’t mind the slight deviation. Emma the housekeeper / receptionist for the Inn was a bit more lively and pronounced for the stage show than she was in the film. While I preferred the more comic relief role she played in the film, the stage show interpretation was quite fun, though she overpowered pretty much everyone else on stage in performance. Susan, the General’s granddaughter, they aged down from 16 in the film to about 10 in the stage show, probably figuring it was easier to work in numbers for a cute kid than a teenager.

The stage production also added several additional characters, which to me seemed pretty unnecessary additions. There was Ezekiel the stagehand with his simple “ah, yep” that came across more Canadian than New England and really didn’t do much for the story. The overly manic stage manager was mostly annoying and really didn’t do much for the story. Same opinion holds for the costumer who just seemed to be present with the occasional line or two. Sheldrake the booker for the Ed Sullivan show seemed to be the only character addition who actually seemed to help the plot along.

In additional to the character and plot changes, my other beef with the show as the costuming choices. Could they have made the two girls look dowdier? Could they have picked less appealing dresses for the final number? Nearly every time a character came on stage I wanted to cringe at what they were wearing. I can see not replicating the film costume for costume, but still at least pick something that is appealing and period appropriate. Part of what I love about the film is the classic Hollywood glamour from the 50’s with the costumes and the stage show just seemed to really fall flat on that front.

To summarize, it was definitely not the film I love. There were bits of it still there but at lot of it changed. And while I was expecting some change, there was a lot more than seemed necessary. I enjoyed the show for what it was and had fun seeing it. But now having seen the stage show once, I probably wouldn’t go again and I’d rather just watch the film for the 100th some time. But if you’re still angling to see the stage show and you know and love the film as much as I do; I would strongly recommend going in with dialed down expectations. And maybe have the film ready in the DVD player to watch when you get home.

…. And that’s, I think, an even better summary of the show than I could have ever managed. If you are just looking for a safe show to take Grandma to the theater to see, then this will probably fit the bill: but if you want your heart to swell with joy, well, that’s what DVDs are for. And if you just want an excellent musical, I hear Assassins might be transferring.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, December 6, 2014. It is booking through January 3rd.)

Review – Mrs Hudson’s Christmas Corker – Spymonkey at Wilton’s Music Hall

December 7, 2014

For all that I love to go to the theater, it’s rare that I get invitations to go with other people, especially fully fledged “Here’s a particular show that I want to see and a date and everything” kind of stuff – unless it’s one of my Twitter friends with a spare to something. So when a friend of mine who lives out of town proposed a Saturday trip to the lovely Wilton’s Music hall to see a show by Spymonkey – well, I said yes without even looking up the details. I’d seen their Hound of the Baskervilles at the Duchess Theater in the distant past (apparently before I started this blog) and enjoyed it enough for it to burn its way into my mind for seven long years, waiting for this very moment to pipe up and say, “Oh yes, Spymonkey! They’re kind of funny, aren’t they! Let’s do it.” And so we did.

Now, Wilton’s is a bit of a stretch to get to but an utterly charming venue with a nice bar and great vibe once you get there. And this show, with a quirky three piece band and four very silly actors, seems to be well suited to the venue (and the occasionally shit sight lines don’t seem to be much of an issue). The show is set in Victorian times, in the Sherlock Holmes period – why, by gum, the Mrs Hudson of the title is actually Sherlock Holmes’ landlady – so the costuming and occasional music hall bits seemed to fit the atmosphere very well. The gag is that we are going to watch Sherlock Holmes solve some mysteries, sometimes with Watson, sometimes without, and occasionally with the assistance of random other people who are clearly one of the same four actors wearing a different costume. The actors are all having a good time and the audience was occasionally roaring with laugher – they were well up for the evening.

I, however, found myself a bit left behind by the whole thing. I didn’t get the second joke (a bit with Karl Marx singing something in German apparently from a 70s British TV show – passed right over my head), I was actually a bit upset when Watson was moping about Holmes being abusive to him, and the pattersong was done too quick for me to follow along. However, by the time the final mystery appeared – just how does a virgin get pregnant – I was having enough of a good time allow for a substantial suspension of disbelief as Holmes and crew made their way back 2000 years in time. I loved the arguments between God and the angel Gabriel, and was completely amused by Gabriel’s lascivious attraction to Mary, who had apparently gone without much physical attention in her life and seemed like she was likely to have none in the future – touched by an angel indeed! When God really chewed out Gabriel for behaving inappropriately, my sympathy was entirely with Gabriel, who at least recognized that Mary has a right to have pleasure no matter how much she was going to go down in history as a baby making machine. Go Mary! Go Gabriel! And go Spymonkey for making the most blasphemous play I’ve ever seen. Made me proud to be in a country where people weren’t walking around going, “HARRUMPH I’ve just been insulted” or, er, protesting or, um, setting the building on fire. So while the rest of the evening was a bit limp, the show ended like a rocket, BANG BANG mystery solved! It gave a whole new twist to the turn “getting into the Christmas spirit.”

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 6, 2014. It continues through December 31st.)

Mini-review – Hope – Royal Court

December 7, 2014

After three nights of pantos, I was certainly ready for some straight theater, and Hope at the Royal Court seemed promising. A “a funny and scathing” “urgent” political play sounded like just the thing for me, since I feel really angry about what’s been going on in the UK since the ConDem coalition got in and I think it’s exactly the kind of topic that is well handled by playwrights – fast to get out the satire while the burn is still there.

The plot is about a group of councilors in a smallish town in the Labour part of England who are having to make decisions about where to make cuts in order to manage their budget under the much reduced financial situation they’ve been handed by Westminster. Now, as an American, I was finding a lot of the background information very confusing. I didn’t get the feeling these people actually were elected locally – they seemed to be picked by their party – and they seemed to depend solely on money derived from the central government to cover their expenses. They did point out that they could raise some taxes, but that there was a (Westminster generated?) law that tax rises over 1.9% had to go to “the people” for approval. The near complete reliance on external money and the total non-concern with re-electability was a change in world view I had to accept; but an environment in which a local government was controlled by the opinion of the central government about how they spent their money blew me away – tabloid press hysteria was winning the day and being so swayed by social media was hard to conceive. Nobody in Arizona gives a second thought to DC complaining about how Arizona makes their budget; and DC would never tell Arizona to go back on a budget they’d made. Setting voting districts, maybe: but not spending money.

But I do understand all too well that the current government has managed to dance away from taking responsibility for cuts by letting “local” governments figure out their own budgets and then take the heat. But where, I ask, is the rage about the people who decided to cut the money in the first place? How did it become the different people who might lose money fighting against each other? Watching the little people running around on stage (for little they were from my perch in the balcony), the whole thing just seemed tragic and depressing. What is wrong with people? How has saving the banking industry and making it easy for international corporations to move their profits to their shareholders instead of spending it in the country where it was earned become the status quo? Why aren’t people more outraged? If only Hope had really been a comedy instead of being a play with some funny bits (best scene: schoolboy Jake – Tommy Knight – trying to be ultra suave with councillor Julie – Sarah Duncan Brewster – and getting called out for staring at her chest) and a few interesting characters. It sucked all of the hope out of me and left me pretty down. Ah well, back to bread and circuses tomorrow

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 4, 2014. It continues through January 10, 2015.)

Review – Treasure Island: Curse of the Pearl Necklace – Above the Stag Theater

December 5, 2014

It’s odd to be going to shows not as the wide eyed novice, but as the return visitor who has pretty clear ideas about what to expect. I love being surprised; but there’s a lot to be said for choosing a known quantity with an anticipatable payout. In the case of the Above the Stag panto, this means lots of crude jokes, a queen for a dame, and a gay lead character. They’re shows meant for adults (it is in a pub after all) and they go down best with rather a lot of drinks. Sounds like a winning formula, don’t you think?

This year we have a new script (one I hadn’t heard of as a panto piece before), “Treasure Island,” which, with usual subtle humor has the add-on title “Curse of the Pearl Necklace.” Now, this is plenty rude enough, but as it turns out the necklace in question is a major part of the story line and has absolutely no connection to whatever sort of dirty thing you might have thought it meant. It’s a piece of jewelry, it is held together (a bit too tightly in some scenes) with a clasp, it draws misfortune on the wearer – and, unsurprisingly, it draws rude jokes at the end of the show. And in the middle, if I remember correctly, and possibly even the first time it appears on stage. In fact, one might think this item was chosen for its endless ability to feed tasteless humor; even at the end of the show I was still laughing as the jokes had become fresh again (as had my drink).

So, plot! This year we are transported to Cornwall, where Sally Hawkins (Philip Lawrence, on good form) runs a trashy little pub called the Royal Bumboy with her son Jim (Lucas Livesy, bandy legged and believably on the make) and his friend Marina the adorable young lesbian (Briony Rawle, very sunshiny). Into their lives walks baddy Long John Silver (Alex Wood, not quite evil enough for the part) and Prince Daryl of Atlantis (Luke Webber, hunky). Silver wants a map to buried treasure, Daryl wants to get home, and everyone else mostly seems to be looking for love. Will happiness be found for all (except those who have lost certain parts of their anatomy, not their hands, and had them replaced by a hook)? Will The Captain (Andrew Truluck) find his missing daughter Miranda (Ellen Butler) before his other daughter Josephine (also Ellen Butler) can take over her share of her trust fund? Will Merman Ethel become human again? Will the man in the front row that Silver keeps flirting with ever take offense? Will the audience be able to finish their drinks after they’ve been shpritzed with silly string? These are the kind of questions this show raises, and, believe me, it’s definitely not Chekov.

I was actually a bit disappointed with this production despite really liking the characters and enjoying some of the clever settings (the boat was great) and ideas (an island with tide pools filled with booze cracks me up). We had some great characters to work with (Marina was great, our dame Sally was extremely strong, and Ellen butler was hysterical in her dual role), but it didn’t really gel for me. The songs were few and forgettable, but mostly the cast didn’t seem like they’d gelled with each other. I was also really hoping for some slightly more subversive/political humor than we got … was this just too grim of a year to poke fun at the politicians? Still, this was my third panto in a row, and early in the run, so I expect the show will firm up (ho ho ho) as things settle in. If you’re looking for a gay old time, this is the right show to see, and it will only be more charming with a bit of pirates’ punch poured down your throat. Arr, mateys! No kids and just the kind of people you’d want to hang out with in the audience, why not make this where you find your Christmas cheer?

(This review is for the performance that took place on December 3, 2014. It continues through January 10th.)