Archive for April, 2015

Mini-review – Gypsy – Imelda Staunton at the Savoy Theater

April 29, 2015

I’m an Imelda Staunton fan, so I’d already had a pair of tickets for this show in my hot little hand (courtesy of Santa Claus) for some time before the reviews for the Savoy transfer came through (I’m a fan but not enough to go to Chichester). But BOY the West End Whingers were just bubbling all over themselves about this one (“Everything’s coming up roses .. and daffodils!”) and I knew any moment now “it’s gonna be my turn” and I couldn’t wait. I’d only ever seen Bette Midler’s version (on TV) and I really, really was hoping for something amazing.

And, really, that’s what I got. The stage was frequently teeny tiny, a little rotating flip capturing a sideways glance of where things were happening .. but then it opened up in the horrible scenes set in old vaudeville houses. I started off fighting it a bit – the young Baby June was grating (and tinnily miked) and I was glad to see the end of the child actor scenes even though they did get progressively camper as the evening went on.

Songwise, it’s almost unfair to have so many standards jammed in one show – you’re not getting that with modern musicals, that’s for sure – and the emotional ride of Rose’s relationship with the manager Herbie (Peter Davison), and the heartbreak and disappointment when she breaks her last promise to him … Gypsy herself (Lara Pulver) in the shadows for most of the evening, because, really the show isn’t about her anyway … I saw that this time, the fact that I thought it _was_ about her was my mistake, she was just the cherry on top of the cake, but not the cake at all. And oh, the brilliant laughs of the old strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick …” so funny! By this time we were all just riding the wave of the story, the inevitability of Gypsy’s “fall,” which suddenly was (again) about her mother, the most horrible relationship ever, and as the stage finally utterly transformed itself for Mama Rose’s last big number, like something right out of the movie version of Chicago, so big you almost couldn’t believe it was on stage, there was little Imelda belting it out, surrounded by glittering lights … breaking our hearts. It wasn’t the end of the show, but we jumped out of out seats and applauded. It was all just so intense. Everything came up roses, roses covered with thorns, and we (and she) held on to them tight, the blood pouring down and the smile fixed on her face. My God, what a night. I nearly immediately broke all of my promises to stick to cheaper seats and went and got a pair of tickets in the front row so I could see it again but this time from a place where I could see the sweat beading on their faces as every single actor busted their chops to make it awesome for us. Yes, it was that good. Don’t miss it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, April 16th, 2015. It’s on until October.)


Review – A Simple Space – Gravity & Other Myths at Udderbelly, Southbank

April 27, 2015

As well as loving theater, I enjoy movement performances – dance, circus, cabaret, all of it is fun for me. And it’s not in short supply in London at all, especially with venues like Udderbelly on the Southbank, which ups the ante with its two-shows-in-one-night programming. This meant that a trip to see a show by “Gravity and Other Myths” was a no brainer: it was both short and eminently affordable (especially since I had comps). I hadn’t seen their performance last year but thought I’d do my best to play catch up – not to mention the phrase “hottest young circus ensembles” had an enticements all of its own.

Gravity and Other Myths is (as near as I can tell) six men and one woman, with one of the men being smaller and thus capable of doing more of the “top of the pyramid” balancing stunts than the other men. (Per the press release it appears there is a second woman in the group – but she did not perform the night I attended.) You’d wonder just what you could do with a balancing act that could possibly extend the length of the show to an hour, but G&OM found lots of variety, and had the whole evening moving along at a crackling pace. At times the focus was on astounding us (as when the woman walked across the heads of various of the men, barefoot yet somehow getting a grip on their skulls, then dashing down their bodies and back up again); at other times, we were invited to laugh (a balloon animal group squeeze; the human beat box); and then again they had a series of competitions, starting easily enough with a rope skipping competition in which the loser was required to remove an article of clothing (yes this included the skivvies). Things got more intense, though, with a back flip competition, as the losers looked to me in danger of actually hurting themselves rather a lot when they failed to land on their feet; and a competition for standing on one foot while the audience threw balls at the acrobats left me feeling a bit perturbed when I realized the balls had been hitting hard enough to leave welts on the winner. This was fun? It seemed mean.

Overall, I found this a fun night, although it left me wincing more than once. I do worry about the long term physical health of these folks – some of the back movements looked to me designed to cause injury – and I hope they are careful with themselves.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 22nd 2015. It continues through May 24th.)

Review – The Zoo and Trial by Jury – Charles Court Opera at the King’s Head Theatre

April 24, 2015

I’d hear a little about Trial by Jury before Charles Court announced its production – but it seemed a clarion call to work on my Gilbert and Sullivan completism – after all, as a forty minute long one act, Trial By Jury doesn’t seem to get produced very much. And I’ve been feeling very warm about Charles Court Opera, given the three home runs in a row of Patience, Ruddigore and their extremely silly panto that proved the unexpected highlight of the Christmas season. So why not see a double header? And, to my surprise, a theater loving friend in Brighton declared herself so excited by the whole thing that she decided to come up to see it with me, for a Sunday evening show! What could go wrong?

The first piece, The Zoo, was fluffy to near astronomical heights. There was not much of a plot – a pharmacist (David Menezes) in love with a girl (Catrine Kirkman) whose father (Matthew Kellet) resents him for misprescribing a medicine: a peer (John Savournin) whose secret delight is to woo the woman (Nichola Jolley) who mans the refreshment stand at the zoo – these characters meet at the zoo, where the pharmacist is somewhat inconveniencing the other lovebirds by attempting to hang himself. While the songs were fun to listen to, it seems almost churlish to not focus on the hysterical performances given by the performers while (frequently) not singing. Jolley’s cockney accent was killing me, but OOH Savournin packing his face full of cake and eclairs was a sight to see, a veritable side show in itself. The level of mugging was truly epic. We were in stitches. And, er, the singing was very enjoyable as well, but this was absolutely one to see live.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get funnier, we came back from the interval to the chaos of The Trial. Apparently the whole thing was set up as a Jeremy Kyle spoof (I was, but what was absolutely slaying me was the peculiar quiver Catrine Kirkman was giving to her upper lip as “the plaintiff,” a chavtastic bridezilla with a nine-month bump to match the chip on her shoulder. She managed an amusingly nasal tone to her voice, but thankfully as better singing was called for (and less comedy), she gently dropped the facade and let it rip, showing her fine pipes to our pleasure (if to the disadvantage of her character but we can’t really have bad singing now, can we?). Meanwhile there was so much other stuff going on that the main story about the husband to be who jilted her was slipping into the background in favor of, for example, the massively camp performance of John Savournin as The Judge, and the hysterical peeping of Matthew Kellert as the clerk who is offering to save “the plaintiff” from her fate. You couldn’t have possibly kept up this much gurning and goofing around with a longer show, but as forty minutes of in-your-face comedy, it was just hysterical. Side by side with The Zoo, it was like having dessert twice in a row, but I just couldn’t complain because I was laughing too much.

(This review is for a performance that took place the evening of Sunday, April 19, 2015. It continues through May 10th.)

Experiential Review – Early Days of a Better Nation – Coney at Battersea Arts Center/Four Thieves

April 22, 2015

(This review is a work of semi-fiction but also a work of semi-reality.)

It was hard work to get to the meeting of the peoples of Dacia. On the islands, where I live, the anarchy and fighting that have been taking place in the mainland have seemed fairly distant to my reality. We rode through the rise and fall of the Dacian dictator in the same way we deal with all of the crises across the straits – still having coffee with friends, still going to work, engaged but separated. In fact, I only heard of this plan to have an all-country meeting to decide our future at random, while having lunch with a friend who happened to invite visionary (and fellow Islander) Annette Mees as one of our talkative crowd. When she told me about this chance for me to come as a representative to help reform Dacia – to help it make it past our current time of difficulty – I thought it was well worth the effort, even knowing the ferries were no longer running and those of us who choose to attend would have to borrow private boats to make it. With my degree in political theory, it seemed I was practically obliged to contribute to this event, for the sake of all of Dacia as well as to slake my own curiosity.

However, it seemed malign forces – whether of fate or of perhaps the pro-fascist element still alive in Dacia – was set against us doing this, for the People’s Hall of Battersea, where our conference was to take place, burned some weeks before the event. This left us reliant on email to keep in touch while we all traveled to the mysterious new home of the event, a lovely former performance hall now known as the Four Thieves. Oddly, I only knew one of the other Islanders who appeared at our initial meet up, and our facilitator seemed to be … well, not dedicated to Dacia’s success as much as to cheerleading the Islands. Yes, we have a different form of governance in each hamlet, including direct democracy, rotational leadership, and other radical approaches – but with our small population, high level of education, and social cohesiveness, this has been fairly easy. We still have our infrastructure in place, the Bug racing through the refugee camps in Dacia’s plains hasn’t touched us, and there’s more than enough food to go around.

When we got to the big conference room, we were faced with a pretty major decision: did we want to take help from the European Commission, and get food and other aid but have foreign troops in Dacia? Somehow, we weren’t even able to agree how to vote on this issue – the three facilitators for each of the areas seemed more interested in promoting their personal visions than listening to any of the people they were “supposedly” representing – and the whole thing seemed to descend into them shouting at us while none of us concerned citizens were able to do anything to work together. Suddenly, I heard a voice say, “It’s time for us to abolish the borders!” and it was if I had seen a light: sure, we were sitting in a room divided by the areas we had came from, but every citizen of Dacia was my concern, not just those relatively privileged few of us on the islands. My brothers and sisters were living in tents, fighting for their lives, lucky if they could feed themselves, and we’d let these false prophets turn our meeting into a fight over details when we had obvious, big picture issues to address. They didn’t seem to have the basic precepts of how to chair a meeting much less how to build consensus. We were rushed through to a decision based on a false dichotomy created by the selfish leaders and at the end, I saw our chances for working together, and even the chances for easily being able to feed our nation, destroyed, as they chose to declare that we’d voted against the European Help despite the fact the numbers were NOT on their side. It’s clear that those who control the media control policy far more than any individual, as even a big group of individuals was steamrolled but all the news channels said was that we’d said no.

It was heartbreaking to reconvene a year later (mind you this time with beer) and discover how far we’d fallen. I’d been shielded from it, again, in the Islands, but the situation in the Plains and the Cities was even worse – pure chaos. Somehow, in this environment, we needed to come together and figure out what to do with the few resources we had. The result and attitude were both gamed, as we were handed out single tokens and essentially divided into three again, but I decided it was time to break through the borders and sat with the Cities representatives. What we needed was to understand each other and to see what need we had, and to change our divisive attitudes to truly rebuild ourselves as a nation. An effective moderator finally emerged from the representatives, and we began to support her, as she slowly worked her way around the room, ensuring each voice was listened to; but at some point, the anarchic situation we were in reasserted itself and a large portion of the voting counters were stolen. But we seemed to agree, at last, that we needed to feed the nation, and that the richer areas could do with less in order to stabilize the poorer … and then the moderators attempted to cut off our attempts to reach consensus (a slow process) and rush us through. Sure, the lights were going out, but our will was strong: and some daring women discovered the thief who was attempting to make away with control of the mines to his own benefit and decided to bring him to justice. It was a great moment, but it appeared that the Powers That Be were more interested in ending this bizarre commingling of Dacians and abruptly declared our decision making process over, then gave us a pre-scripted story about what the outcome would be from the votes we had made – as represented at a point in time that was convenient to them.

But I am here to tell you the true story of Dacia, not the tale that news agent, paid by relics of the old regime, spread on that evening. We, the room of us, agreed that feeding our country and controlling disease were a must, and that, while we needed to hold on to the mines, restarting them was not as important as keeping our citizens from dying. The people from my home, the Islands, agreed that giving up some of our easy living in order to ease the situation for the Plains and the City – to help Dacian farms become productive again and to give our people stability – would lead to a long term best outcome. Because this wasn’t about us and them: it was about all of us. We’re all struggling but everyone has nearly enough to eat now and the political situation has stabilized.

The citizens of Dacia who came together that night saw that what was best for all of us was the right choice – not what was easy or fast or philosophically interesting, but that which decreased human suffering. We needed to make Dacia function, starting with the basics of survival. Now, three years later, we’ve just started up the mines and we’ve arranged the jobs they provide so they’re benefiting people across Dacia – and ensuring the income generated by the minerals is invested in the people and infrastructure of our country. The women who ensured our mines remained national property were true heroes and while the lynching was ugly, it saved our country’s people from a far worse fate.

I’m glad I had this opportunity to tell the truth about what happened that night. Every day people built a new nation underneath the noses of the vested interests of the old regime and the greedy grab-guts who wanted to steal our patrimony away for themselves. I didn’t know if it could work, but it did, and I’m glad I took the chance to get out of my comfort zone and help build a future for all of us.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, April 21st, 2015. Early Days (of a Better Nation) continues at Battersea Arts Center through April 25th. It then tours through May 14th: for details see the Coney site.)

Review – Ah, Wilderness! – Young Vic

April 22, 2015

I’ve really warmed up to Eugene O’Neil since seeing his Long Day’s Journey Into Night at the Apollo some years ago. I’d previously thought of him as a writer of go America rah-rah schmaltz (based upon reading the script for Wilderness in high school, apparently), but now I see him as a modernist with a well-honed ability to create characters with real depth. Maybe that’s the secret to the great American dramatists of the 20th century – being born to families that were deeply, deeply messed up, providing them with rich source material to build their semi-fictions upon. However, there’s none of his usual grimness visible in this play, which is quite accurately described as his “warmest, most delightful play” (some slight references to alcoholism do NOT take it to the “dark undertow” stage). Instead, what you get is a family where the mom (Janie Dee) is absolutely devoted to and protective of her children – while being aware of their faults – and a father (Martin Marquez) who claims to be willing to wallop his offspring and yet chooses to give up the main advertiser for his paper rather than punish his son unjustly. How can _that_ be a dark world?

The Young Vic’s Ah, Wilderness is set in a clapboard house with sand spilling through every door into a pool on the stage, where Old Eugene (David Annen) watches his younger self relive his memories. Now, Old Eugene is not a character in the play – he’s used to read bits of description and to occasionally show emotion in response to things that happen – but he effectively adds layers of sadness and nostalgia to what happens, in this house that’s full of memories and near the beach, the ocean sand covering nearly everything a metaphor for all of the overlayers of years and passing time. Young Eugene – er, Richard Miller (George MacKay) – is a hysterically overemotional teenager who reminded me of nothing so much as a modern day Goth kid. Who’d think the trappings of rebellious, literate teenagerdom would be so exactly the same in 1906 as in 2015? He’s reading Oscar Wilde, talking about taking the rich away in tumbrils to the guillotine while waving around his copy of Carlyle’s French Revolution … all he needs to do is start carrying on about Morrisey and wearing eyeliner. My friend and I were practically in tears in the opening scene, as his family debates Richard’s tastes in literature while butchering one British word after another (I thought “gaol” was pronounced “gay-el” as well before I moved here) and an elder brother declares to all that Wilde’s great crime was bigamy. Oh God. When Essie Miller came in at the start of the scene complaining about her son’s “awful books” I would have never thought I’d have read all of them or that it would be the springboard for such a moment of shared literacy (and laughs) amongst the audience. (For details on his horrible books, this author did all the homework for me.)

For good comedy, not having everything be funny is key: and underneath this play is the pain of lost love, suffered temporarily by Richard and eternally by his uncle Sid Davis (Dominic Rowan), both of whom address their ills with alcohol. Sid’s bender with his brother in law leads to an uproarious dinner scene with Sid chewing on lobster shells and making fun of both his sister and her husband to great effect; but his funniness loses its edge when we realize he’s drunk himself into unemployment and out of a marriage both he and Lily (Susannah Wise – dad Miller’s sister) want. These four characters – the mother, the father, his sister, her brother – are all likeable and yet none of them perfect; on stage, their interactions speak of lives that have touched each other for ages before and will continue to be entwined into the future. They’re masterpieces of writing and absolutely pitch perfect on stage, each one of them, the actors inhabiting them as if they carry them around like their own skin when they walk out of the building.

In fact, the only real complain I could have about this show is that it’s a bit too happy. Nobody I know has an entire family familiar with Omar Khayyam and able to leap to the defense of an overreaching youth on an instant’s notice; running out of work, especially when you live in a small town (and have been run out of your work) is much more of a tragedy than this show plays it. And we all know that this is not his life he’s showing us, and somewhere bubbling under the giggles is the wretched truth brought out in Long Day’s Journey into Night. But this is the play that rewrites the facts of O’Neill’s life to find comedy and warmth; and there’s more than enough misery out there, in real life as well as on the stage, that I think it’s okay for us to take the opportunity Natalie Abrami has given us to sit back and enjoy ourselves for a while. Here, it’s the Fourth of July; put your rose-colored glasses on and join me on the moonlit beach and let’s watch the fireworks for a while and just live in the moment.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, April 20th, 2015. It continues through May 23rd. I suggest sitting so that you’re slightly on the right side of teh stage – if you’re facing it – so you can see Sid’s face during the dinner scene. This play is an excellent value at £20 and a good night out at £35, with bonus value if you want to have a good laugh and walk out feeling like the world isn’t such a bad place after all.)

Mini-review (and festival preview) – Lysistrata – Theatrical Niche at the Illuminate Festival

April 20, 2015

A few weeks ago I was contacted by someone doing publicity for the Illuminate Festival, a new event taking place at the Wimbledon Studios (next to the New Wimbledon Theater). The programming looked stunningly broad, from comedy to Shakespeare to new plays to a revamped Lysistrata – their cup ranneth over! And the prices were good, too, £10 a ticket, with a location that was generally underserved for fringe theater. It seemed to me like a worthy effort, though one I was going to have a hard time fitting into my schedule. I realized that the best option for me was going to be Lysistrata, which I’ve been interested in seeing since I first saw Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations (back in the 80s – although they’re from the 90s … the 1890s). I was promised a new translation, with puppets – which all sounded good to me.

Aristophanes’ comedy is about the women of Athens attempting to convince their men to end a long-running war by withholding sex from them, in conjunction with the rest of the women of Greece. Apparently in Greek times there was lots to make fun of about this as people talked presumably a bit more openly about the physical proof of men’s desire – in a way which, as an American, I have a difficult time speaking of even when I’m just typing. I find it hard to imagine this play being done in my homeland, but it seems that things are quite a bit more open here in England and people are able to tolerate performances (occasionally) in which such delicate items are treated as a matter for broad comedy. And in the case of this play, it seems like you may want to call it “broad” comedy, since it’s the women who are running the show from start to finish. We are served up with oral as well as physical humor, with puns galore (the “willy” of the people was a good one) and loads of jokes which were often funny as well as low minded.

However, the beginning of the play – the entire first act – got to such a slow start I questioned if I would make it through to the end. There were only five actors to do everything, and Lysistrata herself (Venetia Twigg) just seemed so virtuous and uptight it seemed hard to believe I was actually at a comedy. I was further brought down by the puppets, which were not very attractive and would have been better served, I think, by being eliminated in favor of just using humans to play 1) people of the other sex 2) old people. Now, this may seem a bit unfair as this was all obviously done on a budget, but I do really love puppets and they were a distraction to me. The fight scenes were both great, though: it’s clear the planning was there, but there was a lack of polish. Fortunately it all came to a head in act two, especially when Cinesias is attempting to convince Myrrhine to sleep with him. Watching the poor men walk around, all but disabled by their erections, had us howling with laughter … Overall, I think it was a good night out, appropriate enough for the price, and it made me feel pretty enthusiastic about the rest of the festival.

(This review is for a perforance that took place on Friday, April 17, 2015. It continues to tour until May 1st.)

Review – The Father – Trafalgar Studios

April 11, 2015

So me: fan of Strindberg. So Traf Studio 2: great productions in a small space. What, then, was this stinker doing clogging up the place? Strindberg is an expert at detailing how two people – especially two married people – can make each other’s lives a living hell. And this was a perfect example of it: a middle aged married couple where the woman (June Watson) was actively scheming to make her husband (Alex Ferns)’s friends and associates think he has gone mad. Laura needs the Captain dead (but not by suicide!) or committed so that she can take over running the family, especially when it comes to determining the future of their daughter, Berta (Millie Thew). Amazingly, she’s taken a position of weakness and built it up to an attack position, from which, so it seems, one final mind game seems to throw The Captain over the edge – or at least enough to convince people he has actually gone crazy.

Long before this, though, I lost my ability to believe in anything happening in this wooden, malformed production. Nearly every single character was either poorly acted or just hopelessly limited in their ability to express more than two emotions. Berta: winsome. Nursie: stern but a cupcake inside. Wife: skin hung around a robot. At one point, looking at the well-heeled audience, I thought I’d stumbled into a preview performance where the actors were still struggling to gel; but no, they’d all fractured off into their own little worlds and not a single one seemed to actually occupy the same stage as anyone else (actually the preacher was fine and the soldier, and the doctor wasn’t horrible but still wasn’t believable). I thought maybe Strindberg had lost it, but no: the clunkiness in the dialogue had to go down to the adaptation (and thus I blame Laurie Slade) but ultimately the actors failed. Fern wasn’t horrible, although he was over the top too often; for him, I think the words he had to speak were what made his character seem silly rather than tragic. But over all, this was a terrible show that left me frustrated there was no interval and eight people between me and the door. Thank God it closes tonight.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, April 9, 2015.)

Mini-review – Sweeney Todd – Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel at English National Opera

April 9, 2015

Great was the anticipation and cheap were the seats (£10 top balcony) for my Wednesday night trip to Sweeney Todd. I haven’t always enjoyed Sondheim, but I seem to be warming up to him – I certainly really liked Assassins and Merrily We Roll Along, so I hoped this would be the trip that warmed me up to Sweeney Todd.

I wasn’t, however, expecting that this was going to only be a partially staged production, with the orchestra on stage and the cast running around on a few little platforms. Normally my ENO complaint is that they overstage things and don’t allow room for imagination – in this case, the emphasis was so wholly on the music that I was unable to emotionally connect with the show, and with the use of mikes I felt like my ability to connect with the singing was also curtailed. Mostly I could follow the lyrics (in the balcony the supertitles weren’t visible, but hey, it’s in English), but watching people stomping around in circles on stage, stealing chairs from the orchestra and generally trying to act like they were telling the story just using what was available on stage rather than having any proper props … it didn’t work for me. I wanted acting, I wanted to be able to see the performers 95% of the time and not 80% (the front of the stage was hidden for me), and I wanted to hear singing. I didn’t get these things.

Now, Emma Thompson has a bit of a scratchy voice, but she put across Mrs Lovett quite well and what I wanted from her was to be convinced, not sung to: but Terfel, who had a kind of forgettably perfect voice (does this make sense? – it just seemed to lack personality) as Sweeney Todd just didn’t seem to really be bothered with the whole acting thing. Perhaps it was the stiffness of the staging, perhaps it was the acute angle that we £10 vermin were watching from … or perhaps it’s that opera singers aren’t really supposed to be great actors because they don’t have to. I’m leaning toward the last option.

In the end – which, for me, was at around 8:50 PM – I decided that I’d got my money’s worth out of the show and wasn’t really enticed enough to stay for the second half. I knew what was going to happen, I got to listen to the silly song about “Try a little priest” … and I wasn’t feeling like I had to prove my £155 ticket was worth what I paid for it. Apparently I should have paid a little extra and gone to see the Tooting Arts Club’s Sweeney down the street … or perhaps the lesson is that I should just avoid this show. At any rate, I’d say, if you can still pick, go for the Harrington’s Pie and Mash experience – you’ll probably find it far more compelling and a better value on your pound.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 8, 2015. It continues through April 12.)