Archive for May, 2015

Mini-review – Sunny Afternoon (the Kinks musical) – Harold Pinter Theater

May 27, 2015

If you’re a Kinks fan, this isn’t the review of Sunny Afternoon you should be reading. This review is for someone who knows next to nothing about the Kinks but likes musical theater. Should you, oh fellow cultural outsider, see this show? Is it a good musical – or really just a jukebox musical, a way for fans to relive the experience outside of the concert hall?

But how could it be that I didn’t know much of the music of the Kinks? First, I’m too young; second, I’m not British. I was aware of the song “Lola” and “Come Dancing,” but those were the only two songs by the Kinks I could have dredged up out of my memory: “You Really Got Me” I certainly knew, but as a background song from the oldies radio station. I had never heard “Sunny Afternoon” or “Dedicated Follower of Fashion” (and not really “Waterloo Sunset,” at least not ’til I moved here): but I discovered (during the course of the show) that I had heard a few via The Pretenders – “Stop Your Sobbing” and “I Go to Sleep.” So there you have it, Kinks fans – I’m really sorry, but they just weren’t as fantastically big in the US as they were in the UK. My 60s listening has tended toward psychedelic music and girl bands, anyway.

So, then, why did I go? Well, it’s actually due to the talk on the show presented at the Hampstead Theater’s Page to Stage Festival, in which the show’s playwright Joe Penhall and its director Edward Hall talked about the complexities in building this story and bringing it to the stage. The writing process was fantastically exciting to me, as Ray Davies was directly involved in it – I mean, who gets to have the subject of your show walk in and say, “Yeah, that’s good, but did you know about this other story?” There was also some mind-expanding talk about recreating the sounds of this band during the sixties, ranging from getting the right kind of amplifiers to teaching all of the actors to not just to act the roles of musicians but to perform in the style of the musicians who they were emulating (i.e. one of them was always a tiny bit off-beat). It sounded like such a great artistic effort that I got really interested in seeing the output of all of this effort – and, I figured, at the end I’d know who the Kinks were in a way I certainly did not before the show started.

As a play, this show succeeded in creating some very rich, believable characters – primarily Ray Davies (John Dagliesh) and his brother Dave (George Maguire), whose richly nuanced performances created the semblance of real legends on the stage before us. And to throw us more into the milieu of this extremely creative era, we had a cast with not just the four people in the band singing and playing, but every single actor on stage contributing to the music (as near as I can tell), including some extremely surprising turns as the two posh boys in the first act turned out to play the trombone and the late middle aged actor who played one of the Kinks’ British lawyers turned out to be a rather fine percussionist. The energy on stage was really impressive – everybody seemed to be having a good time. I even caught the background pianist singing along to tunes where here clearly hadn’t been miked. The joy and excitement wasn’t just on stage, either, because by the end of the show all of the people sitting in my section (who all appeared to be in their late fifties to sixties) were up and dancing and having themselves a real knees-up.

This was what I enjoyed about the show – a chance to hear some really seminal British music performed, not just in its original context, but in its current context, with fandom intact. And I was intrigued by the ups and downs of the bands. However … as a story, it just didn’t get very deep. References were made to Ray Davies’ mental health issues – and they were portrayed a teeny bit on stage – but I never got a handle on just what was going on in his head or how it was affecting his daily life or his creativity. The conflict between the band members was laid out clearly enough, but I couldn’t see how it really ramped up or how it was resolved – just transitioning into another song didn’t explain it. And this seemed to be the solution for nearly every moment when the story could have taken us deeper – play a song. This, unfortunately, didn’t enlighten me, and I still have no idea what brought Ray together with his (first) wife, or how she ever found time to make it into the recording studio after the birth of their daughter. She looked groovy and sang great, but …

In conclusion, I think this is, to a great extent, a jukebox musical, because, while there’s lots of story going on, there just isn’t enough personal evolution for me to really rate it as a play. But there’s lots and lots of music and it’s really fun and it tries to really recreate the sound and feel of the era – and maybe that’s enough. It was certainly a good night out and I walked home humming a lot of the songs, and after any musical, that’s the criteria that would make me say I enjoyed myself.


Mini-review – Carmen Disruption – Almeida Theater

May 22, 2015

It’s several weeks since I saw this show but there’s still two performances left of Carmen Disruption at the Almeida, so I’m going to add my two cents (but not much more).

Carmen – the opera – is an intense emotional journey, one that, for me, ends in triumph as Carmen chooses following the dictates of her heart over a lifetime of misery with a man whom she rightfully despises (Don José). Carmen is a woman of passion – and, sadly, so is Don José, but without strength to make him someone worth respect. He wavers and wibbles, he is dishonest to his former love Micaëla, he is weak and despicable. Of course Carmen wants the toreador Escamillo. Of course weak Don José kills the person who can see him for what he is. It is all inevitable.

This feeling of inevitable doom for all involved permeates Carmen Disruption, no doubt in part because of the heavy presence of the barely breathing animated bull that dominates the stage. It’s added to by the stripped-back set and the constant insertion of some rather good music (including the delicious singing of Viktoria Vizin) – but these are the highlights of the evening rather than a side dish to the main. Two of the five characters are given interesting stories to tell – The Singer’s loss of her identity, gigolo Carmen’s arrogance and rape – but there isn’t enough in the five of them to actually create a story arc, a personal evolution, an anything. I could almost believe in their realities, but I didn’t care. It was like a collection of lesser short stories by an author early in her career – poorly formed and pointless. It relied on the gravitas of the original to give it motive energy and then totally squandered it.

I had been encouraged to see this show by an exuberant review but I lived to regret buying my ticket. I shouldn’t have spent more time thinking about where I had heard the song Hall of Mirrors than I did anything else in this play, including why the central death might have mattered at all. I escaped angrily into the night. Such a waste of time and energy. Such a waste.

(This review is for a performance that took place April 27th. It closes May 23rd.)

Mini-review – Woolf Works – Royal Ballet

May 22, 2015

Every new ballet is a cause for celebration: even more so when it’s a full-length show. Many companies will only produce one every few years: but we’ve been lucky to get a regular feed of them here in London. This year the Royal Ballet has programmed a real treat: a full length ballet by Wayne McGregor inspired by the writing of Virginia Woolf. For McGregor, Woolf Works represents a first full-length ballet work – meaning that for the Royal Ballet this represents a real risk, most poignantly financially. For us readers – and, practically, for the Royal Ballet’s audience as literate Londoners – it represents an opportunity to see a well-loved artist’s legacy reflected through another person’s eyes (and other bodies). But this again is a risk. So I say they’ve programmed a treat, but oh the potential for disaster! But one thing I think everyone agreed on: the topic was worth the effort.

As presented, Woolf Works focuses on three of Woolf’s books: Mrs Dalloway (“I Now, I Then”), Orlando (“Becomings”), and The Waves (“Tuesday”). Deliciously, each section (and the whole production) is approached in McGregor’s usual collaborative, gesamtkunstwerk style, so the sets/settings and lights are richly evocative but also extremely modern. We start with Woolf herself speaking while an animated graphic of her words rains on a scrim … a beautiful effect to take us into a world in which bodies, movement, light and sound attempt to recreate the internal effects of reading Woolf.

“I Now, I Then” is the most realistic and, I think, mostly closely pinned to Woolf’s actual writing: nearly a straight narrative of people remembering their younger selves and dealing with their (less glamorous, less happy) current selves. It introduces us to Alessandra Ferri, as Mrs Dalloway, but also as a representation of Woolf herself – Ferri is no longer the fresh young thing and is thus able to more physically embody the regret of the character she plays. The emotions raised by this section were overwhelmingly of longing – sometimes for the past, sometimes for the attention of/affection of others – with shimmering moments of joyous memories rising like koi from a murky pond. This feeling of looking painfully on the past slides us perfectly to the final section, “Tuesday,” which, while seemingly about The Waves, is much more of an exploration of the mental landscape of a deeply depressed person – one who sees fit to throw herself beneath the waters we see constantly roaring above her. It ends the evening on a heartbreaking note.

In the middle, though, was my favorite section: “Becomings.” I looked forward to it for the chance to see my three favorite dancers – McRae, Watson, and Osipova – on stage together, but also had the joy of McGregor’s oft-used pairing of Lamb and Underwood (why does Underwood never get such excellent choreography in other dances?). We started with dancers emerging from the shadows in stylized Elizabethan court dress – lots of ruffs and gold lamé – but with the gendered versions of the costumes not staying fixed. Eventually, as the lights from the side began to appear shining down in bars, I felt that we were moving forward in time, with somehow a core personality for each performer staying put while the physical manifestation of their existence morphed and wobbled. Then, in the end, as tiny LEDS lit up the arches of the layers of the seating at the Royal Opera House, it felt like we had got to a point where we were beyond gender. Then it was one step further forward so that we simply existing as glittering points of consciousness – and the lights went out. I had been smashed in my chair by the forces of acceleration and then was suddenly floating in space. We had just gone on an adventure beyond the ultraworld. I can hardly imagine a better adaptation – we, the dancers, and Woolf had all been transformed. I can only hope that somehow I can have a chance to see this again before it ends.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, May 20, 2015. It continues through Tuesday, May 26th.)

Revew – Carrie the Musical – Southwark Playhouse

May 20, 2015

I know it was just last week that I was giving you a lecture about how I do make some assumptions about basic cultural literacy (regarding Death of a Salesman), and yet, here I am, less than a week later, having to admit I’ve never seen Carrie – the movie, the book, OR the musical. In fact, my closest acquaintance with it is via the book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops. It’s this book that drove me to see the show, currently revived at the Southwark Playhouse, wondering what it was that made the original fail so badly; but then, there’s just the excitement and novelty of seeing a horror film/novel on stage – not some high-falutin’ literary stuff like Frankenstein or Phantom of the Opera, but an actually blood-and-teenagers quasi-morality rollercoaster ride.

Or, you know, just a really bad musical. I was in.

I got a big kick out of seeing, after many years away, a reproduction of the high school dynamics of my youth on the stage. The mean and popular girls, the stupid and popular boys, the constantly changing friendships … and, of course, the rejected geek. Oddly there was only one in this school – there should have been a boy or two as well (later to rise, Bill Gates like, from the ashes of nerd-dom) – but in the case of Carrie White (Evelyn Hoskins), we had a girl with the double burden of being socially awkward and also the daughter of a freaky hellfire and damnation mom (Kim Criswell). In terms of setting up the story, all of Mom’s blithering about how the day of judgment was going to come helped nicely to build a case for Carrie losing her self-control as the bullying at school hit a peak – although that’s getting ahead of the story – but Carrie’s mom also creates a sort of logic to Carrie “coming into her powers” as she hits menarche – it’s not an uncommon idea, after all, that being able to bear children is a sign of being strong. However, Margaret takes it straight to wacky town with her crazy talk about “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” nonsense which seems really unfortunate if you have a teenaged daughter with red hair that you perhaps resent for causing you to spend your own adulthood as a single mother. It’s definitely a bad situation for Carrie, who’s only real support comes from a well-intentioned gym teacher.

The gym teacher, however, in trying to manage the behavior of the girl bullies winds up utterly aggravating the more aggressive of the two – Chris (Gabriella Williams), a perfectly toned, tanned, and heartless blond that you know from the first scene is going to not make it to the end of the play. Her friendship with the one nice girl, Sue (Sarah McNicholas) seemed at the beginning like it was going to form more of a counterbalance to Carrie’s own unfortunate life – but instead, Chris becomes simply single mindedly mean, and the focus moves off to the romance between Sue and Tommy (Greg Miller-Burns, simply charming). Unfortunately, all of the high school kids wind up just becoming a big blur – and the feeling of hate and abuse I think that needed to be built in order for us to fully revel in Carrie’s explosion just doesn’t happen. I blame part of this on the fact the lyrics were so damned difficult to hear most of the time – and you can’t blame it on the accents because I should have been able to understand it all. And then the special effects bits that were supposed to help us “get” Carrie’s building telekinetic abilities nearly disappeared, especially from my seat in the corner. I knew something bad was going to happen, but it wasn’t built up to very well by the show, and the final disaster scene was neither scary nor moving – a bit of a damp squib in the end, possibly just utterly unsuited to the musical format.

However, what did work well was the fantastic acting of Evelyn Hoskins and the gorgeous voices she and Kim Criswell treated us to. Hoskins had be really believing in her as the lead character – she continued sympathetic throughout and just looked so fragile – and listening to her and Criswell belt it out had ten times the power of the levitation moments or the collapse of the gym ceiling. I think, maybe, we’ve got a case of a subject just being horribly mismatched to format. If it’s the duets that touch us, then let’s have more of them: but if they want to do an ass-kicking Grand Guignol performance, let’s have eyeballs being gouged out with corsages and people being run through with I-beam. Or something. The show is a bit of a mixed bag, but I can’t help but feel there’s something in it worth saving, maybe with an utterly reworked ending. Ah well, I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it at last and I’m looking forward to seeing Hoskins on stage again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 19th, 2015. It continues through May 30th.)

Review – Fanny and Stella – Above the Stag

May 18, 2015

Those of you that know me in my personal life may be aware of the fact that I’m 1) slightly goffick 2) into wearing historically accurate Victorian clothing (comes from acting in Gilbert and Sullivan, true fact) 3) struggling with a life-long crush on Tim Curry’s Frank N Furter. I’ve also been a gay ally since I was in high school, which was actually a bit of a dangerous thing back in the early eighties (not that I cared). Wrap this all up in a bow and what you have is, essentially, the perfect target audience for Above the Stag’s latest production: Fanny and Stella: The Shocking True Story. In fact, I was also the target audience for the book Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England (I saw a poster for it in Soho last spring and took a picture of it so I could remember the title), which is how I originally became aware of these two Victorian cross dressers. While the book is the same story from which the play is based, apparently Glenn Chandler, the writer, did his own original research for this show. In fact, he came up with the nugget of it back in 2010/11 when he was doing research for his musical Cleveland Street Boys. So, it can’t be considered an adaptation of the book: it is an original undertaking which takes full advantage of its form to stick mostly to the facts while presenting them in a deliciously theatrical way. Did Fanny and Stella take the story of their lives on the road (in grand Jeremy Kyle fashion)? No, but pretending they did makes for a very entertaining evening of theater.

The choice to deliver a history lesson in the form of a music hall revue is not just charming (I like a singalonga) but very appropriate, both in terms of giving us more of a feeling of Victorian culture but also in placing the characters in a situation which would have been natural for them, as both William Park (Fanny – Marc Gee Finch) and Ernest Boulton (Stella – Robert Jeffrey) played women on the stage in the 1870s. Pretending we were all at the Bermondsey Working Men’s club with a hammy MC (Mr Grimes – Phil Sealy) filling in the roles added several extra layers of humor to the evening. But in addition to the good times of the theatrical life, we also get nice, thick slices of Fanny and Stella’s (especially Stella’s) home life. Stella is a very popular girl – she’s not just kept by a lord (Arthur Clinton – the comic James Robert Moore) but whisked away by her childhood sweetheart (Louis Charles Hart – the sincere Christopher Bonwell) and also manages to attract the attention of the rather delicious American consul Robert Safford Fiske (the dangerous Alexander Allin). Fanny’s no stick in the mud herself, though, as she keeps Lord Clinton’s bed warm in Stella’s absence. Whoops, “Where’s My Fanny Gone” indeed!

Marc Gee Finch tells a tale of infamy!

Marc Gee Finch tells a tale of infamy!

As we work through the background of theses characters’ lives – with plenty of stops for impromptu theatricals – we see a bit about why they cross dress, but also their existence as, essentially, fun loving scamps having fun dancing, shopping, going to the theater, and performing. Still, their lived lives seem transgressive for the times – as the arrival of the evil bobby shows. Only then do we move on to the trial – which took place nearly a year after their initial arrest. It’s all done for fun, especially the recitation (and creation) of the lurid medical reports, and we get another song about the “He She Ladies” (their nickname in the press). But the fun Fanny and Stella manage to have has a bit of an air of doom about it all, and, indeed, all three of Stella’s lovers meet unhappy ends. We’re left dangling a bit about how things wound up for our two heroines – it appears they made it back to the stage, but how did things really go? Still, ending a show based on fact with a desire to learn more about the subjects to me indicates narrative success – we’ve made an emotional connection that we want to continue.

With such a plethora of puns, petticoats, and picturesque pretties on stage, this show was well along the way to a successful seduction within the first few minutes – and what can I say: move over Tim Curry, there are two new loves in my life. I’ve gone and bought the book, I’m kicking myself that there’s no song list in the program, and I’ve told several of my friends that Fanny and Stella is a romp with bells on. Here’s hoping they hand out a lyrics sheet as the production continues so we can have a proper knees up round the old Joanna!

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place Friday, May 15th, 2015. It continues through June 14th.)

Review – Death of a Salesman – Royal Shakespeare Company at Noel Coward Theater

May 14, 2015

It seems pretty ridiculous when you think about it that I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, but it has just always seemed so canonical that there didn’t seem to be any real pressure to go. I mean, seeing a rarely produced Arthur Miller play, now that’s an event. But his most famous one? I’d studied it in high school, and, well, now that I think about it, it just didn’t seem to get produced all that much … anyway, so here I am, it’s 2015 and I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, so when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production was coming to the Noel Coward, I jumped right on buying a ticket, especially because I wanted to hit the sweet preview pricing. My reward was a £30 seat in the back of the Royal Circle which, while it did leave dents from my knees in my chest, gave me a fully unobstructed view of the stage and would have been perfect if I’d only been three inches shorter.

Normally I try to hide plot details from people in my reviews, but I’m not really going to do that this time – be warned: like Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, the details of Death of a Salesman are something I’m going to assume you’re familiar with, and I’ll talk about it all freely here. But before I do that, I’m going to share this bit of interval chatter between me and my co-viewer:
“Well, how about that? It’s pretty good, huh? But I wish you could see a version on Broadway.”
“Why would I want that?”
“Well, you know, so you could see all of the famous American actors.”
“Are these actors not famous? I don’t really know.”
“Well, yeah, Antony Sher, and I think Harriet Walter …”
“Look, I don’t need to see anybody else in this play. This cast is perfect. Biff is a little weird but it’s basically the way he’s written. I could not ask for a better production of this show. It’s the kind of thing that makes me thrilled to live in London, where I can see stuff like this, absolutely excellent realistic theater, every night. I can practically expect it. And yet still it’s a bit of a surprise when it’s all as good as this is. Now let’s sit down and watch Willy Loman fall apart.”

Right, off you go people who don’t know the plot.

Thirty years after I last dealt with this play, I’m amazed at both how timelessly its depiction of American values bears up, and how very much my emotional response to the characters’ voyages has changed. As a picture of America, Miller got it spot on in 1949 just as carelessly accurately as O’Neill did in Ah, Wilderness! – but I experience it differently now that I’ve become estranged from my country of birth. Americans’ focus on positivity, the lies people tell when life gets ugly, the materialism and shallowness – it blows me out of the water to see society so unchanged nearly seventy years later. But the vibrancy of the characters Miller created gleamed across the decades as well, and was well polished by the outstanding delivery the RSC’s troupe gave us. As a teenager, I found all of the characters detestable, much as Biff rejects his father for falling short of his moral standards: but as an adult, I can see the shortcomings of all of them through more forgiving eyes. The mother, Linda, whom I hated for being a doormat as well as being disloyal to her sons – now, as a woman near her age, I can see how outstanding her loyalty to her husband is: and with Harriet Walter in the role, I was able to believe, to the soles of my shoes, that Linda truly, deeply loved Willy, and that she understood that he was falling apart and needed her more than ever. The sons, Happy and Biff, well, I can see where Miller has tried to draw them in a way that we can see how their childhood has made them into the people they are today: but I now believe that Biff is a badly created character rather than a detestable human being. Both Biff and Happy treat their father repulsively, but Biff’s inability to get his own life in gear simply doesn’t have a believable basis per Miller’s writing. Alex Hassell gives it his best, but I can’t buy him because I can’t buy the character.

Willy Loman, though, wow, what a tour de force. On paper, reading Linda saying that he is “tired” didn’t work for me; but twenty five years of trying to make sure I have enough money for rent every month has made me blaze with sympathy for the horror of Willy being stuck back on commission and losing his salary – at 60. I’m also more familiar with the way aging affects the mind, and as I watched this man who’s spent his life shilling stockings try to make sense of why his life now seems like shit, well, I am seeing early onset dementia (especially in the Ben scenes) as well as stress. I used to hate Loman for cutting his wife off but I know see how he’s desperately grasping for any life preserver he can find, and his shushing is more to keep his focus than to show any dislike of Linda; and his relationship with his best friend (he seems abusive to him as well) now, once again, reeks of deep, unconditional love on the side of his best friend Charley, which was doubtlessly built over the years and thus is able to be sustained, on Charley’s side, in the face of Loman’s mental collapse – which is brilliantly, diamond-sharp brought to life by Anthony Sher. Every up and down, dream and delusion is made real: his mercurial outbursts, his scrabbling, his begging – it was a believable, absorbing journey from start to finish. I simply could not believe how damned good this play could be, but with a cast this fine, Miller’s tiny wobbles were simply wibbles. I loved it. I’m so glad I had an opportunity to see this definitive performance of this excellent play – I recommend it without reservation at any price level (provide you’re buying from the box office).

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on May 12th, 2015. It continues through July 18th.)

Review – Portia Coughlan – Aria Entertainment at Old Red Lion Theater

May 6, 2015

Although Portia Coughlin is a revival of a show that previously played at the Royal Court, I knew nothing about it – 1996 is a million years ago in theater time. So I’ll give some background and plot to help you out in deciding whether or not to see this play, but I’ll try to make it fun.

Step RIGHT UP to the amazing FREAK SHOW LIFE of PORTIA COUGHLIN (Susan Stanley), supposedly irresistibly attractive but clearly just a MESSED UP ALCOHOLIC. Meet her CRAZY CIRCLE OF FRIENDS that make absolutely no dramatic sense including THE WARM HEARTED ELDERLY HOOKER (Veronica Quilligan, who easily steals the show) and her AMAZINGLY TACKY YET WELL LOVED BIRTHDAY PRESENT (a ceramic horse “from the garden center,” which Portia prefers to the diamond bracelet her husband gave her earlier). WITNESS A CAVALCADE OF GOTHIC SECRETS as we discover PRETTY MUCH EVERY CHARACTER HAS SLEPT WITH ANOTHER including the brothers and sisters DOUBLE DOUBLE INCEST TROUBLE!!! SEE Portia try to strangle her mom WISH Portia would strangle her granny BE AMAZED as Portia zig zags from one emotion to the next. WITNESS credulity-defying over-salting of the plot! GASP at the clothes everyone wears to the funeral! And finally … LAUGH as Portia’s blind best friend invites a barkeep to screw her in her eyesocket!

The surprising thing about this play, in retrospect, was how very strong I found each of the performances, from the alternately dead-eyed/totally mad Portia to her warm, loving best friend (Karen Cogan), from the sleazy barman (Conan Sweeny) to Portia’s bitter mother (Susan Cummins). Each single one of these characters (and there were about ten) was vibrant and believable, absolutely conning me into believing they’d only ever existed as the person I saw on stage and not as an actor. But the story itself, the way we were thrust into so much misery so fast, just killed my ability to buy into what was happening on stage. Really, there’s enough bad news to sustain a year long TV series, but far, far too much for a seventy five minute play. The characters go careening from one peak emotion to the next, switching from highs to lows faster than a barrel racer at the rodeo, and I just couldn’t go along for the ride. And then, while I couldn’t fault the accents, the depiction of Irish townsfolk as being “mystical,” “in tune with the supernatural,” “loose,” “violent toward women,” and, let’s be honest, a pack of drunks, seemed to me like the grossest kind of stereotypes that stained the play so much that the perfectly executed accents could not polish it clean again. There must have been about five plays jammed into this one work, one play about dealing with loss, another play about a mystical relationship with a river, and a really great little play about an elderly sex worker and her charming autumnal romance. The whole thing needs a serious rewrite by Marina Carr, and this script should be relegated to the “things wot inspired me to do other things” bin and not restaged again – it’s just too hopelessly flawed. Except for that one line about the eye socket – that will live forever.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Friday, May 1st, 2015. It continues through May 23rd.)

Review – The Verb, “To Love” – Aria Entertainment at Old Red Lion Theater

May 3, 2015

I booked myself in to see The Verb, “To Love” knowing absolutely nothing about it other than it was a new musical. I love musicals, I very much support new plays, and I especially support new musicals because if we don’t get out there and make audiences for them, people are going to be afraid to put them on. So I showed up all bright eyed and bushy-tailed, but inadvertently set myself up as an object to be mocked by the musical, and even created an audience of one to watch a parallel comedy taking place in the the audience starring me. Yes, I was at the Old Red Lion on an internet date, a fact which I shared with another critic, Jordan (it was opening night so many of us were there), as a sort of an icebreaker while I sat and nervously nibbled on a cupcake. This meant that, no matter how you sliced it, I was absolutely the target audience for this play – practically the subject of it – or perhaps I’m being too maudlin. I think what I’m really saying is, despite this play seemingly being written for a very specific audience, it is, in fact, quite universal – at least, if your universe consists of being a middle aged saddo attempting to rebuild his or her life after the rather catastrophic end of what had seemed like a life long relationship. This is all verging heavily into oversharing, but hey, this is a blog and I’m not a professional critic, so sometimes you get some backstory and sometimes I talk about my cat and isn’t this the great thing about not being beholden to advertisers – it’s just me and, what, my thirty or so readers, none of whom (hopefully) see me as the horrible failure I often feel like outside of the pages of this blog. And what I was looking at on stage was someone who looked a whole lot like me, but was a gay man. Simon, I feel your pain.

If you haven’t managed to turn this first paragraph into something mimicking narrative coherence, I’ll give you a plot summary: The Verb, “To Love” is a musical about a middle aged man trying to rebuild his life after the end of a 20 plus year relationship. He manages to pull a much younger man, and we are taken on the entire arc of this experience, from seeing his “Two Eyes in a Doorway” to a long period of questioning if they were more than friends, then questioning if they were more than friends with benefits, then to questioning if it were actually love, you see how we’re going here? It’s almost entirely a one person show, and with so very much input from Simon (Martin Neely, effortlessly believable and a lovely voice) we’re able to follow very closely along with his heart as he goes on this emotional journey. There’s a lot of struggling with the age difference, but it turns into a struggle about how his career seems to be taking a back seat to his partner’s, and a whole host of associated feelings with that (especially regarding moving houses) that seemed remarkably universal, but, oddly, not the kind of thing I think I’ve heard as the subject of a song in a musical, or even in a play. Relationships are really complex things, and the emotions that accompany them are so much more than you get from, say, Rogers and Hammerstein – I found myself really pulled in to this story, which was the kind of soul baring you might only get from your very best friend and even then quite rarely because, well, it’s embarrassing to be as honest and imperfect and insecure as Simon is.

And then, shockingly, it was over. Well, not the musical, but Simon and Ben (Gareth Bretherton, the pianist, who couldn’t have surprised me more when he started singing than if the spider plant itself had struck up a tune), and although we could have stopped the musical there, instead we get to go on another journey with Simon as he tries to deal with his grief (and the joy of going from “I have to rebuild my life from scratch” at the beginning of the musical to “I’m just too old to do this any more,” and, brother, have I ever been there). We get to see some real ugliness (and hear an extremely modern song, “Talking/Stalking”) as Simon tries to sabotage Ben’s new thing via Facebook, then get some real comedy as Simon tries to give his heart a push start with “Online Dating.” The room was getting very warm, I was realizing I couldn’t talk about any of this stuff with the person sitting next to me, and I was thinking, wow, I’m at a musical that both in style and substance is truly 2015, capturing so many of the details that mark how life is being lived now, in fact, how I’m living my life at this extremely uncomfortable second.

This chamber musical was a real treat, tying my heart in knots no Boy Scout could unravel. Or maybe the knots were there when I walked in, but Andy Collyer had just found the words to describe them better than I ever could have myself. I only hope I can have my interior musical end on such an up head space as “Strong Alone” – but since the night ended with my date running off (hayfever set off by the astroturf on the set, apparently) and my new critic friend and I having a good laugh together, perhaps there’s hope after all.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 1, 2015. It continues through May 23rd.)

Review – No Milk for the Foxes – Beats & Elements at Camden People’s Theater

May 1, 2015

My initial take on No Milk for the Foxes was that it was not going to be a show for me. I’m gonna quote from the press release: “Through spoken word, humour, live looping and beatbox, No Milk For The Foxes explores Cameron’s England from the perspective of the working class.” Losing me a little, there, sounds like it’s going to be preachy .. “As working class artists themselves, the creators want to challenge representations of class on the modern stage and bring humour and humility to their audiences.” Aw f**k no way, the LAST thing I want when I go to the theater is to having someone tell me they’re going to “challenge” me and teach me some humility. Thanks, I got people at work that spend all DAY trying to show me how I’m under their thumb and when I go see a show I usually go to forget that, not spend 90 minutes having someone playing mind games with me because they’ve got something they think they want to prove. I just won’t even play. And if they’re going to be working so hard to show “the working class” on stage, I’m probably either going to not understand their accents or not understand their jokes. And rap music. Please.

BUUUUT … then I saw Matt Trueman’s preview of the show and I had a rethink. Trueman was talking about some things that have been pissing me off lately, starting in December with the bullshit about why theater audiences are so white but then carrying on into some very sensible questions about just what kind of people can even do theater given how you practically have to start out with a rich mom and dad to get into the right theater school and let’s not even start on how you’re supposed to manage those first three years of your career without just totally giving up especially if you’re trying to do something crazy like directing. Matt talked to the guys who created this piece, who said they were hacked off with the fact that when you see “people like themselves on stage … it often felt deeply inauthentic.” (Quote not them but Trueman’s summary.) So I’m not into seeing theater where someone is trying to teach me humility, but I am really into seeing shows that are actually trying to get it right. That’s what I loved about Good People – it was one of the first time I’ve seen people like me on stage: playing bingo, struggling to pay rent, dealing with violence and homelessness as simple facts of life. So I thought, you know, let’s see this show that’s about some people that aren’t on stage actually being on stage … and getting it right. God knows with my total confusion about the whole class thing here I wouldn’t have known getting it right from getting it wrong anyway. And, hey, it’s an excuse to break in the Camden People’s Theater, which I’ve never been to before.

As it turns out, this was a pretty entertaining piece (what I look for at the theater, normally), with the two characters, Mark (Paul Cree) and Sparkx (Conrad Murray), having a lot of fun on stage carrying on with each other, with the kind of silliness and camaraderie I’ve seen develop between coworkers at job after job. There isn’t really a plot, per se: it’s mostly the two guys just meeting up on shift and BSing with each other. Through the chat you get to know the two of them: their attitudes toward politics, Mark’s attempts to make a life with the limited opportunities he’s getting, Sparkx’s general indifference to work and yet odd inclusion in drinking outings with their manager. In between chatting segments (and making tea, and looking at the hole in the fence outside), they do little rapped songs, one of them making noises while the other talks. These bits provide some further illumination on their lives, especially their interior world (always hard to do in a play), but also some reflection on the world around them. In this sense it almost becomes a sort of traditional musical, or maybe an operetta, only in an ultra-now kind of way, because it’s not a GRAND story of A HERO and a HEROINE and OOH THE EMOTION but rather the flattened out world of every day, the small dreams, not the dramatic. People just don’t usually make musicals about these kinds of lives, or anything to do with these kinds of jobs (you’ll remember Carmen was not about spending months on end rolling cigarettes, even if that was most of her life), because it is really just so mundane and painful to grind through: but the rap really works to add the extra layers of reality on top. I liked it a lot, even though sometimes I couldn’t understand what they were saying (I’m not good with slang so this happens still). I think it could be the first work of an entire body of work done in this style, but time will tell …

Interestingly enough, it looked to me (from my seat three rows back) that Beats & Elements had actually succeeded at making a play that was attracting people outside of the middle class to the theater, because the behavior of the other patrons was such that I got the feeling they hadn’t really done this before. A couple of people were making commentary rather loudly about what was going on – albeit appreciatively, and I notice this was not carrying on a conversation but more on the line of “Uh oh, he’s gonna get it!”, comments which showed engagement – and also, well, standing up and taking off their coat and someone decided to get into a large packet of crisps or something at about 50 minutes in. It was the kind of behavior I normally find extremely irritating, but in this case, I think, you know, if these people are here for their first time – well, that’s actually kind of awesome, isn’t it? And the performers rolled with it pretty well and someone else shushed one of the loud commenters, but, overall, it was tolerable. Except for the person with the sack of crisps, that was driving me up a tree. But I liked that some people that weren’t the richy rich cats that come to the Hampstead (and snob me off) and all of the silver hairs that I see at the National were at a show, because to me theater is a public benefit that ought to be seen by people outside of those who already have more than enough disposable income to afford it. We need more stories about the rest of Britain and a little less bland entertainment or Shakespearean revivals. We need shows like this, and I’m glad, for once, we got one, because even if these aren’t people just like me, they’re people a hell of a lot more like me than the characters in Hayfever.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 29, 2015. It continues through May 9th.)