Archive for June, 2015

Review – Rules for Living – National Theater

June 27, 2015

I am mystified by the English concept of the embarrassment comedy, a la Abigail’s Party. To me there is little humor to be found in people spending time together being immensely uncomfortable. However, I do not come from a country where embarrassment is glorified as part of the national identity; thinking on it, Americans’ lack of embarrassment is probably one of the little things that makes them so unpopular (or, indeed, objects of comedy) in the UK.

Yet, here is Rules for Living, a new play substantially built around the same concept as Abigail’s Party – a family (and a stranger) spent an extraordinarily uncomfortable time together preparing for and then having a party, and we laugh and cringe as they make asses of themselves – only this time it was funny. Sam Holcroft has a strong idea of what it is that makes families tick, what the resentments are they build up over the years, how they learn to accept pathological behavior (of various sorts) as normal – and he knows we’ve also had our own experiences with this. So this time, instead of having us wait until the great reveal to discover the source of people’s various miseries, we’re given “the scores on the doors,” or in this case on the wall: a physical display on the set of what it is that makes these people tick. The playwright has told us, but this puts us into a privileged position: we know what the characters do and don’t allow themselves to do, but the other characters do not. So we’re now able to tell when a certain character is lying, when another wants to be confrontational and can’t, and so on. For most of the first act, this means we laugh as we see the characters’ own constraints limit them; it’s almost a bit like a sit com in that the chuckles come so fast and uniformly, and from identifiable triggers on stage.

Things took what to me felt like a darker turn in the second act, as family secrets began to come out, the first one being the biggest (and the one having the most immediate impact): the father/grandfather, whose arrival everyone has been preparing for, suddenly appears on stage and we discovered he has had a [SPOILER ALERT] horrifying health change that his wife has been hiding from the rest of the family. Holcroft tries to weave this truly devastating event back into a comic narrative quite deftly, by raising the stakes of people’s misbehavior (drinking and pill popping all happen but are, somehow, laughable); horrible backstory comes out that will probably result in family ties being undone; and yet we don’t cringe, but enjoy watching this family fall apart fantastically. I mean, there’s a food fight, and the characters are actually awarded points (on the score board) for being terrible to each other and acting like children.

But what I found just utterly amazing about this is the practically swept aside story of dealing with a person who’s lost the ability to talk and has lost their memory. John Rogan is devastating as the impaired patriarch; you can see he’s thinking behind that partially immobilized face, and I believed that I understood what he was saying when he was talking to his wife and his sons. What frustrated me particularly is how quickly the sons gave up on trying to understand him; admittedly, for comic pacing, if a lot of that had happened, we would have gone way off course – but I know it’s possible and I hated that they weren’t trying more. And then there’s a situation of inappropriate sexual behavior which I have NEVER seen on stage and which I also wish could have been dealt with in more depth rather than being used as a springboard for more comedy. But that’s me.

And you know what? It was still a really good show, a solid new comedy with some good bones to support it; a bit shallow in some of the characterization (Maggie Service got a bum deal with Carrie), but still a good ride and absolutely worth the 15 quid I paid for my slightly restricted view seat. The comedy was fluffy, but the issues driving it were rock solid; and I was in the mood for a good laugh. With luck it’ll get a transfer and an opportunity for more people to enjoy it.

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

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Review – Krapp’s Last Tape – Robert Wilson at Barbican Theater

June 19, 2015

Imagine the most perfect set ever for a show – one that looks exactly like the pen-and-wash designs, the edges sharp and perfect, the lighting crisply just-so on exactly every spot it needs to be.

Imagine a performance that mirrors this, each movement rigidly controlled, the actor’s facial expressions produced as if from the one perfect take of a cinematic thirty. His clothes utterly match the set, his face a series of whites, blacks and grays, his socks the one spot of color on all of the set (aside from the incongruous appearance of a banana).

We are meant to be watching a clown, a Chaplin, the stripped down bones of the art of drama all squeezed out for the perfection of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a classic deserving of the finest of treatment, the audience there to worship together at this church.

In front of me, lovers necked through the extremely long (and aurally painful) unspoken moments, and at the end a booer seemed like Judas taking his fistful of silver coins; as if saying, “That is not it, at all.” He was practically strung up from a tree for his heresy.

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At home, I read a Facebook post from a friend, saying, ” ‘Thank you for seeing me,’ mumbled the elderly street clown as I took his hand to thank him for making me laugh,” and I thought, that was how that play should have made me felt. Life ends in death and we all have regrets. I do not need to go to the church of Beckett, led by the high priest Wilson, to have that realization. Instead, I should seek laughter and express gratitude for those who do make our limited time joyful. I saw something really beautiful and stripped of all ability to create any sense of shared humanity tonight. Tomorrow, I think I’ll step away from perfection and prayer and go for some sweat and dirt at the circus.

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 19th, 2015, and marks my official last Beckett play ever. Unlike Krapp, I believe in learning from my mistakes.)

Review – Face the Music – All Star Productions at Old Rose and Crown

June 17, 2015

I wear my heart on my sleeve, and if we’re talking musical theater, that heart clearly reads “GIVE ME THAT OLD TIME MUSIC.” I like seeing shows that leave me walking out the door singing a (newly learned) melody, and it’s all the better if there’s a tap dance number (or three) to lift my spirits during the show. Hey, I’m not saying I don’t enjoy Sondheim, but so much music these days is just so introspective and, I don’t know, fashionably boring – what ever happened to writing songs with a hook?

This was a talent Mr Irving Berlin, premiere 20th century American tunesmith, had in spades. So when I read that a show he had written with Moss Hart was going to be making its UK debut at the Rose and Crown, well, I just about slapped a hat on my head and ran out the door so fast there was a little cartoon dust devil left swirling behind me in the hallway. It absolutely helped that it was being produced by All Star Productions, whose How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, One Touch of Venus, and Flora the Red Menace had shown such a skill at squeezing out the core joy and musicality at the heart of the shows (while operating on a tight budget, still not stinting on talent). A trip to Walthamstow has never been so appealing – and they are actually easier to get to than the Gatehouse. Go go Face the Music!

In every way, this show exceeded my expectations. I just went for the music, but the story was slap-me scintillating, positively prosecco-esque in its perfectly targeted wit. This, my friends, is a play that makes fun of making plays, a topic I find hilarious, and it had me guffawing and hee-hawing like a ticklish donkey being ridden by a contortionist. Everyone was hamming it up so much that it was impossible not to believe in them as, well, the actors they were playing (favorite comedians were the effervescent Laurel Dougall as Mrs Myrtle Meshbesher and gigglicious Samuel Haughton as producer Hal Reisman), and to make it even better the full investment was done in lively choreography that kept your eyes riveted to the stage (Sally Brooks). A nice bonus was chorine/dancer Joanne Clifton, a bright star dropped surprisingly into this production to all of our benefit (gorgeous movement and just smashing in all of her costumes – no wonder the cops couldn’t stay away from her!).

The fantastic songs kept rolling in, the jokes slammed us harder and faster, and the ridiculous events of the play layered on each other like a rainbow cake, every slice hysterical. I’d sit around and quote the play to demonstrate how funny it was, but why make you miss out on a single laugh? Let’s just say … I loved this show and I’m going back. There’s no Lost Musicals this season, but there’s a Found Musical just up the road in Walthamstow, and if you can’t afford to go to Gypsy more than once, you can find just as much joy and fun at the Rose and Crown at a much better price.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on June 11, 2015. It continues through July 3rd.)

Review – Scotch & Soda – Company 2 at Spiegeltent, Udderbelly, Southbank

June 13, 2015

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a theater critic in possession of an excess of Beckett, must be in want of a night at the circus. And here is the Southbank Center, with not one but two stages upon which to view circus acts, all in a vibe of love and free flowing Pimms, and suddenly any sense of existential dread has disappeared in a puff of shimmering fizz floating over the Thames. Ooh, who is it this time? Scotch and Soda, a wonderful combination of steampunk and hill billy, with thumping stand up bass and tubas providing a brilliant illumination for the aerial, balance and gymnastics going on in front of us.

The circus performers had created characters rather than just being, well, there on stage; a sassy, brassy blonde (Chelsea McGuffin); the more ethereal rope artist Kate Munts; and the somewhat terrifying and occasionally naked Mosez (a one man shop for undoing the hipsters beard trend). They concocted little narratives, like two men competing to see who could balance on a higher box; a series of balancing acts taking place on a bicycle (really, it plays out like a story when you watch it): all set to the wonderful music of the Crusty Suitcase Band. My favorite of all was a piece that McGuffin did in a collapsible cage with two parakeets, who clearly loved her to bits; it was beautiful, delicate and heartbreaking, an act filled to overflowing with trust yet still heavily overlaid with the sense of the ephemeral condition of our existence. She is in a cage and they are in a cage and yet we yearn to be free – while also yearning for safety, which keeps us in the cage. It was like holding a soap bubble in your hand.

Of course, the overall tone of the show was jolly, and (as usual) it’s hard to capture a circus in words; but if you’re looking for a positive, cheery night out with some good tunes to boot, you could hardly do better than spend your evening in the shiny Spiegeltent watching Scotch and Soda do their stuff.

(This review was for the press night, which took place on Thursday, June 4th, 2015. Performances continue through August 2nd but do check the schedule as the occasionally take a day, or even a week, off.)

Review – This Is How We Die – Christopher Brett Bailey at Battersea Arts Center

June 9, 2015

Amidst the glowing reviews (‘Mesmerising’ – The Guardian; ‘Leaves you speechless’ – The Times), I’d like to add one that will NOT be on the BAC’s website: “70 minutes of pure wank.” That’s an excerpt from my longer review, in which I shouted over the phone at my husband: “It left me feeling gross and sticky and wanting to stab him to death with a plastic fork to make it stop.” He said he thought I wouldn’t like it and I didn’t listen but at least he didn’t rub it in.

Sometimes one man shows tell stories. Sometimes they’re comedy. Sometimes it’s just spoken word. And sometimes it’s someone who’s fallen in love with the sound of his own voice and uses it as a weapon to assault the audience. Can you escape? Barely. Is it interesting? Never. I found myself unable to distinguish the words as they ran together, avoiding narrative, punctuated by the pops of his fricatives against the microphone (“Is that a microphone in your pocket?” “No, it’s a joke I’m going to repeat several times despite the fact that it wasn’t funny the first time.” “Oh, wait, is the joke on me?” “Yes.”)

Sometimes the words briefly coalesced into images then fluttered away, either on the bumper of a car that crashed into his story or on a priest’s head zipping madly into the sky. To add insult to injury, this overly long evening ends, first with a blast of light to the eyeballs (such a sixth form theater school stunt) then with a blast of sonic oppression which only alleviates by changing our pain from merely mental to aural as well. AT LEAST THEY WEREN’T SCREAMING THE WORD JISM OVER AND OVER AGAIN BUT THEY MIGHT HAVE WELL BEEN. SOMEONE HAND ME A WET WIPE AND PASS ME THE SPORK, I’M GOING IN FOR THE KILL AS SOON AS I GET THIS SHIT OFF MY FACE.

(This review is for a performance I sadly paid for the night of June 9th, 2015. If you still want to see it, don’t blame me. We probably can’t be friends anyway.)

Review – The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Landor Theatre

June 3, 2015

For me, the combination of “new musical” and “fairy tale” was a magical one, the kind that gets my expectations really high. I love fairy tales: I read everything by Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson I could get my hand on as a kid, and as an adult I’ve expanded to Hoffman, Nesbitt, Diana Wynne-Jones and Patricia McKillip. Fairy tales make me feel happy: they have beautiful imagery, tropes that can be worked with or against, and frequently moral outcomes that leave you in tears. So when I received an invitation to the opening night of Daniel Finn and Michael Webborn’s newly created show, The Clockmaker’s Daughter (at the very conveniently located Landor pub theater), I was panting to go.

In construction, the story starts off feeling like Coppelia or Pygmalion – clever man makes clockwork doll that comes to life (although I found the relationship of the man to the doll a bit ambiguous – was she intended as his wife-replacement or daughter-that-never-was?) – but ends, rather surprisingly, with a Frankenstein twist. In between, we get a lot of story that sometimes follows the plots of the original – apparently nobody wants a creature they have made, whether their actual child or their clockwork child, to have their own opinions and desires – but then also takes its own turns, the end result being an exceedingly original story that leaves the audience thinking about what it means to be human and how quickly people can turn against someone they decide to label as “other.” We also get lots and lots of songs to move us along – songs about love, not surprisingly, but also about working in a dress shop and aspiring to bust out of the limitations society sets for you. This is true not just for our robot hero Constance (Jennifer Harding), but for her would-be swain Will (Alan McHale), and it’s hard not to root for them to succeed both with making their lives into something that makes them happy and in finding love.

The Clockmaker's Daughter

The Clockmaker’s Daughter


From a set perspective, this is not just one of the most complex but also one of the most evocative constructions I’ve ever seen in the Landor. David Shield has not just made gears and springs for a workshop, but the gewgaws and frippery of a dressmakers shop and a rooftop with a nighttime sky, all done in the most compressed of spaces with a golden door and columns staying in place throughout. Really well done! Unfortunately such good luck was not had in the costuming – it ran the gamut from 1870ish through 1895 (early Gibson girl) and … it’s a horrible thing to get fixated on but hard to avoid since I’m obsessed with late Victorian clothing and this play had so much in it about dresses. I realize they must have been pulled from rental stock, but at the least the tears visible on opening night should be fixed, especially for the man who is supposed to be from a big clothing manufacturers – his trousers were destroyed at the heel and, although it was a small detail, it was so wrong for his character I couldn’t get over it. It was like the box that has a dress in it that is “thrown in a well” (a set piece with a hole in it, also used, when covered, as a table) – for almost half of the first act, every time the “well” appeared I could see that box peeking out of it … talk about ruining the suspension of disbelief! I also was unable to see why the clothes (especially the first dress) that Constance sews were supposed to be so special … just another hour’s effort with maybe some tiny bird and flower figurines might have really put that first dress over the top, and the rest of them, I don’t know, needed to have a more unified “magical” feel to them. And Constance needed to look a tiny bit more mechanical – perhaps a blatantly artificial wig would have done the trick.

In the end, I found this “steampunk fairytale” a rich evening out but not as rewarding as I had hoped – the good singing and palatable melodies still didn’t succeed in sweeping me along the way I hoped (I’m like hummable melodies and the songwriting wasn’t as catchy as I’d like), and my grounding in fairy tales left me fighting against being force fed a 2015 message. But I think lots of people will enjoy it, and in the intimate space of the Landor it’s an overwhelming experience of the kind that makes it hard to keep your critical faculties front and center instead of just sitting back and letting the luscious wall of unmiked sound wash over you. It’s certainly a good evening out and well worth the effort of visiting the Kingdom of the Claphams.

(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on June 1, 2015. It continues through July 4th.)