Archive for March, 2015

Review – Princess Ida – The Steam Industry and Szpiezak Productions at Finborough Theater

March 31, 2015

Living in the UK has transformed how I’ve seen Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. From fusty and dusty it’s gone all topsy-turvy, thanks to the graceful restoration work performed under Sasha Regan’s fine eye at the Union Theater and now the rambunctious re-engagement of Charles Court Opera. As a mainstay of US Am Dram groups, it was turgid and nap-inducing: with all-male casts (like Regan’s Pirates of Penzance) and clever restagings a la much of Shakespeare’s canon (in the case of Charles Court – the goffick Patience was an excellent example), we have been allowed to re-engage with the work from a narrative and a musical standpoint. The bones of Gilbert and Sullivan, like the oak supports of an old house, are amazing: strip off the wallpaper and the adversion to discussion anything sexual and suddenly you have singable, witty musicals populated by eminently memorable characters all being very funny.

Yet bubbling beneath the surface like a sulfuric spring in the Med is the possibility that even G&S may have had a few clunkers. Look, for example, at Princess Ida. I asked a friend about this production, and his response was that it was Gilbert “punching down,” as offensive as Taming of the Shrew but “with less excuse.” I was shocked: this is the biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fan that I know! But I was also a bit put off when I saw that it hadn’t been performed professionally in London “for over 20 years” (per the website). And then I discovered that it was written in iambic verse. Oh man! Obviously it didn’t get produced for two decades because it’s a total dog! Arrgh! But I had already booked tickets for Saturday’s show and I decided to just tough it out.

As it turns out, both the warnings I’d received and the fears I’d conceived were unfounded. Yes, this play pokes fun at women’s education, making the point that members of the “gentle sex” are generally incapable of intellectual rigor due to their sensibilities; but there was no doubt in my mind that the men of this piece were also presented as fairly brainless and driven by their hormones. So my worries about it being mean and intolerable were allayed; in fact, one of the highlights of the evening was a song called “Must” (in the original by Lady Blanche, but I believe sung by Lady Meg – Victoria Quigley – in this production). It ends in a call for women to get the vote, and I found it very touching – but, as it turns, this creation, both in verse and sentiment, is almost entirely the work of Phil Wilmott, who looked back on this musical moment through the lens of history and decided to expand it. There was also a rather revised ending that proposes a much happier future for some than the hopelessly heterocentric original could have ever conceived; it was obviously not G&S but it was funny and I think it felt fresh and appropriate.

From the production side, there’s no denying it was done on a budget – two electric pianos (not that you could fit much more in the Finborough and as it was, one of them nearly wound up in the audience); a set that barely manages two different looks; and costumes that aim for Alma Tadema but manage with their unusual seaming to hit Hubba Hubba Honey (for both Ida and Prince Cyril – Ida’s should be less bum hugging and Cyril ought not to be so short as to have us thinking of Scotsman and their underkilt attire). But, still, the goal isn’t to recreate the original, but to give us a change to experience the music (written, all agree, when G&S were at their creative heights) and (most of) the plot. Wisely, there is no stinting with the quality of the performers. Bridget Costello is effortlessly winning as Princess Ida, with her warm voice and sparkling blue eyes: of course all of the princes of the kingdoms would come to win her hand! And to cast Simon Butteriss (perhaps you remember him from Topsy-Turvy?) as Lord Gama, Ida’s uptight yet lecherous guardian, is just stonking good luck for us in the audience – he’s supercilious and unctuous, a horrible combination of Grand Moff Tarkin and Benny Hill – but most importantly, a damned fine singer with a sharp sense of comic timing. In fact, down to the maids/maidens and the lesser princes, the whole cast emanates personality and tunefulness, so that all we need to be transported is small hints in the forms of props and carefully draped statues. It’s an incredibly enjoyable event.

Is it, though, a textbook example of theater of the Victorian age and the sentiments that the Victorians held? No, it is modern, both in its approach and its reconstruction of the dialogue and lyrics to meet modern views while still keeping to the arc of the story. This allows us to hear wonderful songs that we would otherwise have missed out on while being extravagantly amused. I highly enjoyed my night out and, based on ticket sales, you had better jump on those tickets or you may have to wait another 20 years to get your chance.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 28, 2015. It continues through April 18th.)

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Mini-review – Trainspotting – In Your Face at King’s Head Theater

March 26, 2015

It’s hard to believe that In Your Face Theater could be so brave as to take on Irvine Welsh’s incredibly unattractive picture of junkie life and try to make it into a consumable piece of theater. But so they have done, and with enough success at Edinburgh that they brought it down to London to give us non-festival types the chance to enjoy it on our home turf. (There’s a bit where the characters make fun of people clogging the streets of Edinburgh during the Fringe: I can’t help but wonder how it would have gone over with the original audience.) It’s all been condensed to just over 65 minutes to boot, which made me wonder how coherent it would all be.

In fact, there’s so much packed into this show that one hour feels almost like too much, given that it’s sensory overload from the minute you walk in, glowstick bracelet snapped around your wrist, and have to push your way through the dancing crowds filling the theater and try to find a perch where you can watch the show safely. But no place is really safe, as the cast members plop down next to you, stand in front of you (and shout at you, or make fun of you quietly), toss wet, dirty laundry overhead and generally act like it’s THEIR place and YOU’RE the invader. Which we are, kind of, since most of us are people with enough money to spare to go out to the theater and none of is (likely) are dealing with a life-altering drug addiction.

If you’ve seen the movie (or read the book), you’ll remember a lot of key scenes, like the ones with the filthy toilet, the dead baby, and the ruined bedclothes; but everything is made far more visceral with actors who easily get their kit of and smear themselves with all sorts of repugnant liquids in order to make what they’re doing feel real. I felt distinctly uncomfortable in many of the scenes, especially the violent ones, or the ones that hinted at violence; the actors were mostly ignoring us but we’d tiptoed past the fourth wall and things were all feeling a little bit too real. I even had to look away at the shooting up scenes; brrrrr.

While I remember a sense of giddiness and hysteria from the film, this play left out all of the hallucinations, visceral raw joy, and glorious drug highs, giving us, instead, fat doses of the squalid reality the characters are inhabiting. At the end, then, I think we were supposed to have a sad, broken feeling about the lead character’s best friend dying; but, for all that he’d been built up to be a decent person, it seemed impossible to feel anything for someone so hell bent on destruction and stupidity. Trainspotting, as a play, is a more real, meaty, horrifying experience than the movie ever was, and believably summoned the ghosts of the junk dens I knew in Arizona, long long ago, and all of the lovely, intelligent, life-loving people that never made it out of them. It’s a sixty-five minute flashing-lights, violent, shit stained roller coaster ride: an excellent, full body experience – but I felt a sense of relief when we were finally allowed to escape into the damp night.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, March 24th, 2014. It continues until April 11th. Some days it’s even on four times in a row: respect!)

Mini-review – Fireworks – Royal Court Theater

March 23, 2015

Ostensibly Fireworks is a play abut the effect of war on children (as I read the synopsis), but it’s clearly just as much about the effect of war on adults; the parents of our two young protagonists, Lubna and Khalil, are slowly crumbling under the relentless pressure of constant imprisonment and impending death. Outside is definitely not safe; inside is only maybe safe; you can only tell stories to each other and hope that the hand of death passes over you.

But meanwhile, the little families holding on like weeds in a sidewalk are losing their ability to stay sane and support each other. Lubna’s mother Nahla (Sirine Saba) cannot let go of the grief for her young, dead son; she idolizes her memories of him and has utterly abandoned any connection to her husband and (living) daughter and talks frequently of wanting to join him. Her husband Khalid (Saleh Bakri) is trying to maintain the sanity in his household singlehandedly, telling a wide variety of lies to his daughter both about her mother and about the situation outside (with the “fireworks” in the sky). Lubna tells herself stories about visitors from the world of the dead, horribly informed by having seen too many recently dead people. Meanwhile her friend and neighbor, Khalil, is caught up in power and violence and seems to have lost both his ability to be afraid of dying as well as any clear concept of the consequences of death. His parents are much saner, but they seem to be harboring a possibly explosive stranger in their midst – their son.

Although a short play with a few memorable moments, I found this play hard to buy in to. In part, it’s due to the acting of the children (why do they have British accents when their parents don’t) but also due to how they were written. I believe that children will play “checkpoint soldiers” just as children now are playing “burn the captive alive in a cage,” but Khalil’s strange obsession with hitting and violence didn’t ring right with me. And the friendship between the two children also didn’t seem to have much of a basis to it. I think I could have been made to believe that they had just formed a friendship because there was no one left, but I wasn’t seeing the naturalism I expect in children. Overall, it seemed like the writer had some key concepts and scenes she wanted to write, and her characters had to take a back seat to where she wanted to go. I almost completely forgot about it after I saw it; but a bit more work and this idea would certainly resonate in conflict after conflict – God knows it probably reflects the daily life in the Ukraine as well as the Palestine.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 12, 2014. The show has since closed.)

Mini-review – Swan Lake – Natalia Osipova at Royal Ballet

March 21, 2015

I really enjoy Swan Lake, so I make an effort to “collect” productions, noting the differences in them rather like one might do wine tastings (“Oh, this has been oaked! Oh, they collapsed the last two acts!”). It came to me as a bit of a surprise to realize that, after eight years in London, I hadn’t actually seen Swan Lake: on the other hand, given the price of the tickets – it looks like it’s been a recurring financial decision to pass as amphitheater seats alone were running 50 quid. But I was able to find a slightly restricted view seat in the stalls circle for around 55, which is a price I’m more than happy to pay to see Natalia Osipova dancing: I feel morally obligated to see her as many times as possible (or at least once per ballet) now that she’s performing regularly at the Royal Ballet. These brilliant dancers don’t stay at the peak of their career forever anymore than a cherry tree stays covered in pink blossoms all year round.

Sadly for me the Siegfried chosen for this production is Matthew Golding, who singularly impressed me with his complete inability to act during the production of Onegin I went to last month. He a strong dancer but in a story ballet you want someone to pull you in, to get the emotional commitment to the story, and not just see perfect jump (check) perfect landing (check) awesome lift (check) all done with the kind of facial expressions last seen on Luke Skywalker (slightly angry – check – determined to succeed – check). On the other hand, you can absolutely believe his Prince Siegfried is too stupid to tell the difference between Odette and Odile, so that’s one hurdle crossed.

The Royal Ballet’s production (mocked by a friend for being dusty) struck me as singularly deliciously costumed, with the first act done in a mixture of well researched 1870s styles with perfectly interwoven Russian traditional dresses. Were both worn at court at that time? Who knows, but the effect was grand, the colors as varied as leaves in the forest and I couldn’t gawp as much as I wanted to. Instead of the bizarre jester role I’ve seen in some Russian productions, Royal Ballet had some comic relief provided by “the tutor” (Alastair Marriott), who gets in a dance with some girls of about 10 or 12 (Manon Forssell Pyk, Emily-Rose Holland) in which they basically attempt to duck away from him. They were for me the highlight of this act as I rarely get the chance to see young talent on stage – future ballerinas of the Royal, represent! And while the pas de trois was well done, I was bored by the waltzing and generally ready to just move through this scene and on to the lake (oddly I could see a swan boat at the back of the stage from where I was sitting … deliberate? accident?).

Then we had act two, with all of the young men of the palace going into the forest a-hunting and a most peculiarly unfrightening Von Rothbart. However, there was terror aplenty to come as the swans finally came on stage and I realized: they had six young girls playing cygnets. With their whitened faces and blond(-ish) hair, they were like the terror twins of The Shining, only multiplied by three. They didn’t have a lot of dancing to do (and were mostly kept in the back), but they made everything seem more supernatural and just damned creepy – almost as creepy as Golding’s peculiarly immobile face. This is the emotional heart of the ballet and the make-or-break time for me as an audience member, and although Osipova danced well and her fluttering fingers as she slowly folded herself down on stage (with her front body and arms extending to her toes) tried to break my heart, it was impossible for me to buy any emotional connection between this Odette and Siegfried. The swan spell was broken and I felt grateful I hadn’t forked over the hundred quid plus for a proper stalls seat.

The first interval ended and I piled back into my seat, eager to see how the big palace scene was handled and, of course, Osipova being outrageous and outgoing and out there as Odette. I loved the costumes for this scene – it was all done as a masquerade and had a real feel of Masque of the Red Death about it, a feeling enhanced by Von Rothbart appearing with two children wearing death’s masks. He sat there petting him as if they were his evil monkey minions and he a latter day Elpheba. The upper edges of the ballroom all had giant mirrors on them – echoing the giant mirror at the back of the stage that Odette would appear in (or so I assumed: my blocked view cut this right off). Then we had the suite of dances that makes up the pre-choice of bride extravaganza in this act. The various Russian dances and the Spanish dance were adequate, but I was charmed by the Neapolitan dance, which featured flying tambourines, clever arms-like-ribbon catches, and stolen kisses – I think it’s the best version of this I’ve ever seen. It’s all a build up to the series of solo dances by Odile and Siegfried, which, well, were fine but just lacked emotional intensity for me. My heart was checked out and I could not connect. That said, I love it when Siegfried’s mistake was revealed to him and Odile was essentially snatched off stage in a ball of fiery smoke, practically as if she was being dragged back into the depths of hell. It all worked well with the extremely dark tone of this scene and I enjoyed it.

However, I was pretty much ready to go home at this point, but came back anyway hoping for a bit more niceness in the act four dancing. What I got was some black skirted swans … a nice chance to break up the rhythm of the costuming … and the most unconvincing evil Rothbart scene ever. He seemed utterly powerless, less of an evil sorcerer than the Wizard of Oz. Just to mock me further, whatever actually happened to Odette and Siegfried was utterly hidden. They disappeared from my sightlines, then reappeared on a swan-shaped boat. Did she plunge of a cliff and he dive after her? Death seemed unlikely given that they’d already beaten Von Rothbart (could have done it with a feather duster, really, he was so wimpy), so I have no idea what actually was supposed to have happened in the ending. All I wanted to do was get home, and I dashed out the door. Natalia would never know.

(This review is for the performance that was filmed for broadcast in the Royal Opera House live cinema season on Tuesday March 17th 2015 and I’m pleased to say that from where I sat the cameras were not a distraction. I just discovered that the Neapolitan dance was choreographed by Ashton. How wonderful! It did really have a La Fille Mal Gardee feeling about it. Note: this is the final use of this production, per this article by Judith Mackrell: if you’d like to see a proper critic’s response to the production, it’s worth a read.)

Mini-review – Norma Jean the Musical – Ye Olde Rose and Crown pub theater, Walthamstow

March 20, 2015

I’ve had some pretty good experiences at the Rose and Crown, so my hopes were, well, not high, but level when I headed for the long trek north to see this new show, Norma Jean the Musical. I went in the company of a hard core Marilyn Monroe fan, which I thought would be a counter balance either to my enthusiasm or my distaste.

Norma Jean the Musical is based on much about Marilyn Monroe’s life, but told through the lens of her time in an asylum (hint: you are “committed,” not “sectioned,” in America) in 1961. We meet a variety of characters from her past – her mother (Maggie Robson), two of her foster mothers (Ida – Rosy Fordham; and Grace McKee – Amanda Swift), a sort of random male relative from her past (an uncle, I think – Chris Edgerly, also cross cast as a doctor). Thrown into the mix is a representation of Marilyn in her more successful moments (Melissa Suffield) and even a very young Marilyn (Robert Mair), who both argue with broken Marilyn (Rebecca Cole, “Norma Jean”). While we, the audience, are taken through her past to try to understand how she has wound up where she is today, Norma Jean and Marilyn both argue with these different people about what sort of effect they have had on her. A lot of this is done in song, which was occasionally fun but at times just confusing. Fortunately, the music stuck to easy rhyme schemes and uncomplicated sentiments, so I followed along well (occasionally wondering if any of the tunes would get a second showing in “Blink and You Missed It”).

Obviously being raised by so many different people and in such a religious environment (at times) would have had some kind of influence, but the shrill voice of Edgerley’s character going on about her abandonment issues – well, I wasn’t buying into it. In fact, I just couldn’t buy into any of it. While the history was mostly accurate, the conclusions they drew seemed grossly exaggerated, and the constant references to Monroe being the biggest screen star of her age – well, she just wasn’t. She was a bit player with just a few roles and you could easily pick five female stars (Elizabeth Taylor? Doris Day?) who far outshone her. So it seems to me like the show was written from an overly worshipful perspective, and due to that wasn’t able to get into any great degree of psychological complexity. And the conceit (of Norma Jean and Marilyn both being there) just wasn’t compelling. A few of the bit parts – call out to the warm Rosy Fordham and the snappy Randy Smartnick – were very enjoyable, but overall, this was a painful show that I found hard to sit through. As it turns out, my Marilyn fan didn’t like it at all either, and we both blamed bad writing (and songs). The cast probably could have done a lot more, but this seems overall a fan driven effort that needed more writing talent and a more critical eye. As they sang, “What Are We Going to Do for an Encore,” I leaned over and whisper, “I don’t think they’re going to have to worry about it, really”

Mini-review – Man and Superman – National Theatre

March 16, 2015

WARNING: There’s some kind of famous actor in this show and this means that it is massively sold out. However, this is not why I wanted to go, to see yet another stage star polishing his chops at our expense (my expense being 38 quid, an unsupportable price level for my budget): no, I wanted to go because I really, really like George Bernard Shaw and had never had a chance to see this play before.

So: you’re considering seeing this play, and, as a Life in the Cheap Seats devotee, you have one question: is it worth it? Cheap seats are £38 (technically £15 but no chance of finding one of those), time investment (far more important) is 3 1/2 hours. My God. That is a very, very long time to be sat down in a chair. Don’t drink anything beforehand (or during the interval – but do have a bottle of water with you) and I highly advise a small package of chocolate or possibly Mentos.

But, God, you know what? It’s funny. It’s really funny. The story of an anarchist fighting to escape from the love of a conventional (and highly manipulative) woman just seems on the face of it to have no hope as a comedy at all. The anarchist’s obsession with “woman’s highest purpose” – having babies – seems on the face of it to just be so offensive that you can only see him as a villain. But somehow the combination of all of the videos of flowers blooming (in the background) and the scraps of music from Don Giovanni give the whole enterprise this air of the irresistibility of sex (defined as the “reproductive impulse”). Our anarchist is a man who wants to stick with his morals – honesty and truthfulness held highly among them – and, faced with a woman who wants to be loved for who she is (rather than who she pretends to be), he is simply incapable of clinging to the high ground – that is, remaining a bachelor and practitioner of “free love.”

Most delicious and delightful is an extended scene set in hell, with the main actors reappearing as various characters from Don Giovanni (and, well, Lucifer). Now, if they were trying to keep this play down to a reasonable amount of time, this would have been the scene to cut: but, really, it about had me in tears with its endless flagellation of the hypocrisy of society (both ancient and modern, things just haven’t changed). What was that quote? Ah yes, loved this bit: “At every one of those concerts in England you will find rows of weary people who are there, not because they really like classical music, but because they think they ought to like it. Well, there is the same thing in heaven. A number of people sit there in glory, not because they are happy, but because they think they owe it to their position to be in heaven. They are almost all English.” PEALS OF LAUGHER. And, I thought, rows and rows of just these folks were sitting there at the National on this chilly afternoon, only we all were laughing, because, by God (and the devil), this is a funny play, and it hardly matters what name actors are in it (I’m not even going to mention them, they’re all very good): suffice it for me to tell you it WAS good and it was worth forty pounds, buy your Mentos at a nearby cornershop and go see it. Your life will be the richer for having done so.

(This review is for a matinee that took place on Saturday, March 14, 2015. It continues for a while but as it is sold out your best chance of getting tickets is just to leave the page open on your computer screen throughout the day and occasionally hit F5 to see if there have been any returns.)

Mini-review – The Red Chair – Clod Ensemble at Canada Water Cultural Space

March 15, 2015

The first thing you need to know is how to get to Canada Water Cultural Space, and, as it was a new venue for me, I’m going to share this information (assuming you won’t know) with you: take the exit from the station that says it’s for the shopping center, and turn immediately LEFT and walk in the library. It’s very easy to get distracted by the beautiful lake stretching into the distance (for so it seemed at night) and the lovely path leading away from the station, but don’t go that way, certainly not if you’re in search of something to eat: the shops shut at seven and you’ll be thrust back into the night even further from your destination. Fortunately, the Canada Water Cultural Center has a little coffee shop (tea, coffee, cakes, wine) and is a very nice place to wait for a show. I also found out about a bunch of exciting events they’re running in conjunction with an event called Cityreads, which are centered around a book I love, Rivers of London.

But on to the show. I glanced really quickly at the description of The Red Chair, and somehow interpreted that the show was about eating disorders and set in Scotland. But really, it’s a modern day fairy tale told in grand prose style, the words a mix of the richest skimmings of the English language rolled in a crunchy Scots dialect, enough for you to taste the Highlands in every slice. (I found the text soaring right by me at times, which was frustrating, but I love language, and in these situations you learn and you roll with it and now and then you hear a new word and decide you actually know what it means and you like it better than any extant replacement.) It’s told by one woman, Sarah Cameron (the author), and I was so surprised when I realized I’d basically signed up for a story telling night by the virtual fire that I didn’t know what to think or feel for quite some time. I mean, really, it was like being locked in the car of a total stranger and suddenly finding you’d been taken on a roadtrip with only the contents of your purse to get by for a week. Where were we going? Did we get to have pitstops? And … what was that strange noise coming from the engine?

As it settled in, it began to feel more like “Jabberwocky” meets James’ Joyces’ Ulysses, only with Robert Burns taking the wheel. I surrendered to the logic of fairy tales – for that is what “The Red Chair” is, a world where no one ever has to go to the toilet – and let the words continue washing over me. A long list of comestibles passed by like a string of Baroque churches on the Las Vegas strip; a sudden spotlight gave me a chance to meet a third character: still, I had no idea where we were going.

Then, out of nowhere, an outrageous fourth pseudo-character emerged, rather like the unexpected appearance of the Mormon Tabernacle in the otherwise flat streets of Salt Lake City. What in the hell was going on? And why were we being handed, of all things, utterly perfect madeleines? Was there some kind of secret Proustian undertones to it all that I had completely missed? And WHAT ABOUT THE DATES? (I didn’t have any questions about the whiskey we were served later. It was just obviously right at that moment.)

In the end, I felt like I had undergone a sort of transformation along with the speaker (and the characters): we had taken a long journey and all of us had ended up in a different place and with a different view on life (and death). Cameron managed to keep the momentum going well both in her story and its telling, no mean feat for a two hour, one person show. If I were to change anything about it, I’d probably ask for more food more regularly: something about a long drive just makes me hungry. And I desperately wanted to get out of my chair, we’ll say “to stretch my legs,” for reasons I’ll let you imagine but which had everything to do with the text and nothing to do with the elusive mid-show rest break. Recommended for fans of fairy-tales and language play alike, this show was what every dark panto wishes was at its heart.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. It is done at this venue but continues at Lakeside Theatre, Colchester, the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and the Brighton Fringe among other places.)

Mini-review – Meet the Real Maggie Thatcher – Gerundagula Productions at Etcetera Theatre, Camden

March 12, 2015

It’s been eight years since I moved to the UK, and I’ve had a lot to catch up on to be “au fait” with modern Britain. I’ll never get my head wrapped around pop music, sports, and TV, but I figured I could at least get the hang of the political situation since World War II (let’s be honest: in American, that’s pretty much when British history stops). Most particularly, I’ve needed to learn about the history of England that took place during my own life, in particular the 70s and 80s: and to learn about this, I’ve had to learn about Margaret Thatcher. “Maggie Thatcher milk snatcher” was a phrase I’d never heard of growing up in America, and miner’s strikes only existed as a background situation for movies like Brassed Off and Billy Elliot. But I’ve been learning: from cabbies, from cowokers, from total strangers queuing next to me in the rain. I’ve learned a lot from theater, recently: from Handbagged and from Maggie Thatcher, Queen of Soho. And then it became really important for me to learn a lot fast, because I wanted to use her as a character in a play, but I didn’t feel like I had internalized the Thatcher voice well enough to write it myself: thus I wound up in contact with Mike Francis Carvalho and (later) was invited to see a production of Meet the Real Maggie Thatcher (currently at the Etcetera Theater).

The play is a one man show that is essentially a series of vignettes tracing Margaret Thatcher’s career as seen through the eyes of average Joes from around the UK: Somerset, Wales, Liverpool, et cetera. Our lead character switches clothing, hats, accents (and on one occasion teeth) to bring his characters to life. More interestingly, the characters have political views that are all over the spectrum, from a sports fan who talks about Thatcher “making Britain great again” to someone saying that on her death, rather than a bank holiday, we should be partying in the streets. (Me, I mostly hear people speak who oppose her, so, while I know the supporters must have been there, they are invisible to my experience.) The events covered ranged from the obvious (miners’ strikes, the Falkland war) to the more subtle (her visits abroad before her election; the Hillsborough tragedy). The cumulative effect is a good one for the feel of the times, helped (I think) by the fact a person who lived through them is speaking them: rather that the cartoonish version I’ve seen recently (Handbagged, Soho), it’s more of a direct experience of what she actually did as a politician and how it was perceived at the time. Drag queens and puppets are all good fun but it’s helping Margaret Thatcher pass into being a cartoon or a character from folklore rather than a real person whose legacy we are still dealing with today. I think, though, that this play would have benefited more by engaging with her legacy more actively: which, as near as I can tell, is a divided Britain where the parts of the country outside of London are being happily allowed to rot while the government claims “freedom” has wiped out the non-home counties’ economies as if they (the government) wasn’t actually capable of creating a different outcome than the crap one we have now.

With the soundtrack moving us from scene to scene, it’s a fairly fast moving show, albeit one that really needs to be watched with a pint of something from downstairs. It was a good pit stop on my path to understanding just what was going on in England in the 1980s; I recommend it for lefties and Morrisey fans alike.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, March 10, 2015. It continues through Saturday, March 14th.)

Mini-review – View from the Bridge – Ivo Van Hove at Wyndham’s Theatre

March 11, 2015

Of the shows I chose to skip last year due to my ban on seeing any plays for a second time, the only one I really regretted missing was Ivo Van Hove’s production of A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic. Fortunately it came back for a second round in 2015 at the Wyndham’s Theater (but at greatly inflated prices). I decided to suck it up and fork over the (rather stunning amount of ) £60 to see the show, as several people had told me it was their production of the year – how could I give it short shrift?

Two nights later and I still feel bitter about this show and my misguided belief that it might ever have been possible to make a silk’s purse out of this sow’s ear. It was only a few years ago that I saw this play at The Duke of York’s, and I actually wasn’t eager to see this Arthur Miller work again. But now I can put my finger on a lot of what isn’t right with it. Neither Eddie Carbone, his wife or his niece seem like well-rounded characters; Carbone’s anger doesn’t make sense, wife Beatrice sees danger but is kept (by Miller) in the shade, and niece Catherine doesn’t seem to have nearly as much of an emotional connection to Rodolpho as she’s accused of.

But this production makes them even shallower and more unbelievable than they were written. Nobody sounds natural: these folks all have the accent of long term Brooklynites without a trace of their Italian ancestry. For the new arrivals from Sicily, the choice of thick American accents makes them cartoon cutouts – but then, Miller wrote them speaking English, somehow magically showing up in America completely fluent. And Catherine’s behavior, constantly leaping on her uncle and wrapping her legs around him – I found it just utterly unbelievable that any 17 year old would act this way. And putting her in skirts so short we in the audience could see her underwear as she crawled around the floor wiping up water – how much more did Van Hove need to sexualize Catherine? My stomach was turning a little bit. No wonder Beatrice saw fit to warn her that her behavior needed to change.

While the stark setting of this play (a grey low wall around 3/4 of the stage, a plain grey wall with an open door at the back, a chair) may have won it accolades, as I found myself caring less and less about the characters (as they receded from believability), I began to believe that it’s really just the setting that has convinced people that this show is great. It’s a real contrast with the National’s usual florid approach, but it’s hardly new to be stripped down, and it was done far more effectively for Belvoir Sydney’s Wild Duck. This play just doesn’t deserve the effort. Miller just wants to get to his plot points and his social pontification, to show “that the common man is as apt a subject for tragedy in its highest sense as kings were.” But he does this lazily, with two dimensional people who become common (by dint of their poverty) without ever showing them enough care (as an author) to make them men. We, as an audience, get a stunt involving a chair being lifted off a stage and a final ending in which the cast is all showered in smelly, watered down red paint. All of this money and effort spent with so little result: truly, if ironically, this can be said to have been a tragic night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 20, 2015. Seats in the front five rows and possibly even further back will suffer from having the actors’ faces frequently cut off by the low grey wall. It continues through April 11.)

Review – Closer – Donmar Theater

March 9, 2015

I haven’t been to the Donmar much lately – it seems like I get shut out of most of the shows they do these days and have been ever since they raised the bar for being a “friend” and switched to the £10 Monday scheme. But somehow I managed to get a ticket to Closer – two, even – which I snatched up without even bothering to find out what the show was about.

So. There are two men and two women. They meet initially by chance – Dan takes Alice to a hospital where Larry works – but chemistry (and, seemingly, fate) conspire to see them dating. Dan initially seems wonderful – a thoughtful, kind man who doesn’t want to abandon the waif hit by a car – while Alice seems hard: manipulative, deceitful, a user who’s lived life hard and takes whatever she can stuff in her grabby hands, happy to use her looks to even out the poor deal life gave her. She makes a play for Dan – and suddenly he’s going from boring sub editor to Mr Throw Caution to the Wind. What? I found it hard to believe he’d risk losing his job for a shag, and even harder to believe he’d throw over his girlfriend for someone he’s just caught stealing from him. It just didn’t make sense.

We fast forward to a few years, and Dan is getting a photo taken for the novel he’s just written that fictionalizes Alice’s life. He’s been with her for a few years now, and yet suddenly he’s making a pass at the photographer Anna and telling her she’s the love of his life. At this point I gave up hope for this play. People aren’t constantly changing who they are based on random sexual impulses: if this were the case, you’d see people going Jekyll/Hyde/Jekyll/Hyde as they walk down the street. I feel the intrigues that developed between the characters – some due to the men’s inability to handle jealousy in any sort of mature fashion, others due to the women’s brutal pragmatism – generally held water, and there were some nice speeches about sexuality, relationships, and the workings of the human mind that might stand up over time. But this play felt entirely pasted together by someone who seemed to have ideas and situations that they wanted to make scenes out of rather than written by someone who actually understands people. For that, I’d say go see My Night With Reg, which said more with a few minutes of silence than this play did with all of its high energy dialogue. Really, Closer is entirely a waste of time and a talented cast, and I’m pretty sure it’ll die a death soon enough and join the piles of scripts that were forgotten by history as not worth the effort to produce again, once people get past their obsession with internet chat rooms and what happens when you go backstage at a strip club.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 5, 2015. It continues through April 4th.)