Archive for August, 2015

Review – Thoroughly Modern Millie – Landor Theater

August 30, 2015

Thoroughly Modern Millie has a bit of an odd pedigree. It’s a musical based on a movie, a movie that was set in the 20s but written in the 60s. The original movie actually didn’t have many original songs; it was filled with hits from the teens and twenties. So how do you make a sixties movie with lots of dancing but not so much singing into a stage musical? Thoroughly Modern Millie “the musical” actually has a bunch of new songs to flesh it out – even lifted one from Gilbert and Sullivan – although it sticks pretty closely to the original madcap plot (you really just have to call it that) and includes the tap dance number in the elevator (to great effect). But … how does it work?

To my surprise, the net result of all of this flim flammery (now playing at the Landor Theater) was a completely engaging night that actually improved on the rather incoherent plot of its predecessor. We are flown right in from the start to the life of our lovely Millie, Francesca Lara Gordon, who, with her doe eyes, glowing face, and trim ankles seems destined to succeed at her stated goal: marrying a rich boss.

Francesca Lara Gordon as Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie

Francesca Lara Gordon as Millie Dillmount in Thoroughly Modern Millie

This is supposed to happen despite the many obstacles in her way: no money, no place to live, and no connections, but with her first mishap (and second dance number) she’s well on her way to finding a place for herself in New York. And we’re plunged into her world of glamorous dance numbers and ridiculous situations – an heiress who wants to room with her? A landlady (in New York) who’s willing to take credit? Unbelievable! – yet it’s impossible to push back too hard when so much screwball is hitting you between the eyeballs. Sam Spencer Lane ups the ante with fine choreography and a well-cast chorus of hoofers (special marks to Charlie Johnson, I look forward to seeing her dance again very soon) that had me hoping for the magical sound of taps being worn on stage at nearly every turn.

To make it all so much better, for once I got a musical with great songs (tuneful AND witty lyrics) delivered by high quality talent (such a voice from Sara-Marie Maxwell as Millie’s best friend Dorothy – where do they hide these people?) and even snazzy costuming (close enough to accurate for me and not done on the cheap), all of this unmiked and stuffed into the intimate confines of the Landor – and for about twenty pounds a pop. It even has a happy ending. There’s simply no excuse not to see this show and it may be one of the little twinkling stars I go see twice – Millie overdelivered value and that’s about as modern as it gets.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Wednesday, August 26th, 2015. It continues through September 13th.)


Review – People, Places and Things – Headlong at the National Theater

August 29, 2015

Considering how much I loved The Effect – a show which has stayed with me strongly even three years on – there was little doubt in my mind that I had to go see People, Places and Things at the National. But the cost of tickets put me off – £35 quid in previews and all of the cheap seats sold out! What was a girl to do? The situation was not helped by the general sold-outness of the shows – if I didn’t get in, I was going to miss out. Argh! Fortunately I remembered I had a credit slip from my cancelled trip to Everyman, so I was able to tell myself I was really only paying 20 quid and just went ahead and bought a ticket. There, done.

I’m glad I did, because People, Places and Things is a very interesting look at a slice of modern life I haven’t seen on stage much: addiction recovery. That said, this was also hit quite recently by The Motherfucker with the Hat, and one particular aspect of twelve step programs came up in both: the “give up responsibility for yourself to God” or something like that, it’s the big issue I have with twelve step programs as well – what’s the point if it’s going to be so focused on the Great Sky Father that I don’t believe in? Emma (later revealed to be named Sara, Denise Gough), the protagonist of People, Places and Things goes through this mental journey quite convincingly – I very much enjoyed the opportunity to see an almost Shavian confrontation with modern bullshit philosophies.

Earlier on, though, when Emma checks in to the clinic, we get an extended section of classic Headlong work as she comes on to whatever drug she ingested before she walked in the door and then starts coming off of the anti-anxiety meds (and God knows what else) she’s become addicted to. The exit signs warp and twist (thanks to some excellent animated projections – I hadn’t realized they weren’t real), the tiles on the walls slowly warp and float away, and an entire bevy of Emma clones come crawling out of the bed she’s been sleeping in. It was an excellent depiction of hallucinations and nicely captured the unreality of what Emma was going through, including all of the vomiting and loss of bladder control.

Almost a third of the play seems to center on Emma’s experience dealing with the group therapy aspect of the treatment, and, while this provided a great opportunity for many members of the cast to show their chops, I didn’t really get a good feel for how it was supposed to work in terms of her experience. Clearly, when she embraces doing it, we’re meant to see that she’s had some kind of internal change that has pushed her to committing to the program, but exactly what this is is never revealed; and, unfortunately, it’s this giant missing plot point that undid the play for me. So many good performances, such a well-crafted production, and yet the script completely failed to deal with something so very vital to character evolution – ultimately letting down the whole evening. While this is a very engaging show, I think Duncan Macmillan is going to have to find something a little more solid than Wile E Coyote’s outlook on life to get us to buy into the overall arc of this play. Ah well, it nearly got there.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 27th, 2015. It continues through November.)

Review – Our House – Union Theater

August 27, 2015

I’m not the world’s biggest Madness fan – there were only a few songs of theirs that were played in America, mostly on MTV, and mostly on “120 Minutes” – so perhaps I wasn’t the perfect audience for seeing the Union Theater’s production of Our House, but, really, I was more than ready for a musical that addressed MY generation after seeing the flaccid Tommy at the Greenwich Playhouse and a seriously not-my-generation Sunny Afternoon back in June. The question was: would it be a jukebox musical or a story-driven show with bonus Madness songs? I was hoping for the second, but, well, what I got was mostly the first.

Now, Our House certainly has a plot, about a young man fighting to keep his family home from being bought up by a property developer (and trying to make something of his life), and while both of these strands were engaging, the playwright unfortunately chose as a framing device that the protagonist was examining the two different paths his life could take. I’m not sure how we were supposed to understand this is what happened (his dead dad comes back and talks to him a lot), but I suddenly realized that he wasn’t simultaneously working in real estate and working at a car wash. That said, I didn’t know what was real, and the cues we were being given as which thread we were following weren’t clear enough for me. His mom seemed the same in both of them, but the host of friends and his girlfriend sort of wobbled between both paths. I ended the night not entirely sure if he’d gone to prison or when, and my confusion about all of this is my primary complaint about this show. It felt all muddled, and my thinking time detracted from my enjoyment time.

That said, the cast is incredibly lively and delivers performance full of energy and brio, very nicely capturing an early eighties London feel. The dancing is silly, sexy, fun and exuberant; it’s hard not to want to leap out of your chair and join in, especially given the pure dance pros brought in to take things up a level. The effect was added to by the great performances taking place in the mostly hidden orchestra room: great job band people!

That said, the integration of songs and story didn’t quote work for me – I didn’t feel like the songs were moving the story along enough, and I wanted that kind of pure musical effect instead of just having opportunities to hear warmly remembered tunes in a friendly environment. Ah well, it was a good enough night, but I had been hoping for brilliant.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 20th, 2015. It continues through September 12th.)

Mini-review – High Society – Old Vic

August 24, 2015

Oops. Looks like I let this one slip. I saw High Society the night before I started my new job and it turns out one of the things I can’t do is write reviews while I’m at work. So: the music was brilliant, there was some nice dancing, and I went home cheerful and very interested in seeing Philadelphia Story. As for the production itself, I’m glad I was able to get a half priced ticket, as it didn’t blow me away – still, it was a good way to celebrate financial solvency, if a bit unmemorable.

Review – King Lear “with sheep” – Courtyard Theater

August 23, 2015

The premise sounds enticing (per the Courtyard Theater’s website): – “A stubborn director is trying to put on a production of King Lear with a cast composed solely of sheep.” This thrilling intro seems to be enough to entice a sell-out audience to the basement of the Courtyard Theater, where we sat, reading notes on personal safety in barnyard conditions, and all apparently overwhelmingly excited to see a play in which animals are the star.

Once upstairs, there are several interesting things to note. First, when the sheep enter the auditorium, the smell is overwhelming. My God, the lanolin and the shit. It was an intense experience. Second, the sightlines are terrible. I was in the fifth row and the performers were mostly invisible – by which I mean “the sheep,” who are only knee height for a standard actor and thus nearly invisible within the confines of The Courtyard’s big stage.

Third: the premise. The whole thing is apparently a joke, which is fine with most of the audience because they are just there to see some cute sheep and have a laugh. I, however, was desperately hoping that my third attempt at King Lear this year would be at least somewhat redeeming, given that the first attempt was so poorly acted I snuck out at the interval (yes this was the Brian Blessed King Lear) and the second attempt had the lead actor insulting the audience by referring to the script for most of the show (a href=””>John Mcenery was rightly ashamed of himself). How it broke down in reality wass 15 minutes of a single actor making faces and excuses; fifteen minutes of the same actor talking to costumed sheep about their failures as actors; and fifteen minutes of the three best scenes from King Lear (the storm; Gloucester’s eyes being poked out; Cordelia’s death scene, with Lear cradling a black Shetland sheep in his arms) done with sheep. None of it was particularly great, but it was short and it did give rise to about fifty puns which my husband and I rattled off at speed both before and after the show. I could share them with you, but instead I’ll say that the smell of sheep and the taste of the puns pretty much is all that this show left me with. Still: cheap and fast and still better than the other two performances, this show would have been ideal fare between other serious productions at a fringe festival, but seemed rather trivial to make a night out of when so many richer things were on offer.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday August 15th, 2015. It’ll be back on September 23rd for a longer run.)

Review – Bugsy Malone – Lyric Hammersmith

August 21, 2015

I was seduced into seeing Bugsy Malone by an enthusiastic preview I saw about the process of turning the film into a stage musical. A bunch of kids and whipped cream on stage? Gangster fun, 70s style? It all sounded like a very good time, and as the positive reviews came in I became convinced I needed to see it, more so as I attempted to book tickets only to find night after night sold out. Well! A genuine, home grown hit, at a not-West End theater! How exciting!

Today I can only shake my head in shock. What went wrong here? How could so many reviewers lead me wrong? Looking at it, I think there must be some serious differences between the different kids that are in the cast. The night I went, Fat Sam spoke in a manner that made it impossible to understand what he was saying. Really, it was so bad that I was completely lost about the action on stage. What was the conflict in the first act? I’m not sure, as I was having to guess based on body language. His arch nemesis, redhead Dandy Dan, didn’t help either. I couldn’t help but wonder just what had happened with their dialogue coach. Did they have them speaking with marbles in their mouths and then leave the marbles in? To add insult to injury, Fizzy sang his solo number (“Tomorrow”) off key. Now, he looked like a really little kid, and I appreciated the effort, but it just grated.

On the other hand, there were some really great performances, most especially from our Tallulah (Samantha Allison) and the ethereal Thea Lamb (Blousey Brown). Both of these young women could really sing, but they also put forth a tremendous amount of personality in their performances, and I relaxed and enjoyed myself during their spotlight numbers. Similarly, the Bugsy we had on our night (Daniel Purves?) was a total pro – he worked the crowd like he’d been doing it for years.

The production values were uniformly high – excellent costumes, fully-developed choreography (the stand out number still being the one in the boxing ring) and a great depiction of life in 1930s Chicago – but it wasn’t enough to change the fact that I barely knew what was going on and felt like the numbers had been added to fill out a very slimly plotted show. While I have to congratulate the Lyric on the effort to put a production like this on, I can’t help but wonder why it got such good reviews. Ultimately, I’d only give this show one star. It was a long and generally unpleasant night and the few good bits were not enough to save this incoherent (literally and figuratively) show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 17th, 2015. It continues through September 5th.)

Review – Tommy – Greenwich Theater

August 17, 2015

As my companion and I walked into the Greenwich Theater on Friday, I had a sudden pang of terror that only comes with the realization that you’ve missed your show’s start time. The lobby was empty, the box office staff looked bored: but I was sure it started at 7:30! How had I done this? I nervously asked for our tickets and was told that the audience was all in the bar. Really? I’d never seen this kind of aching emptiness at any of my previous visits to this theater. What was going on?

The answer came to me as we walked into the house, which was two thirds empty. I had almost never seen a theater so utterly vacant. However, our lovely seats in the middle of row H were purchased, and neither of us had seen Tommy before (although my companion was a huge fan of the music), so we sat ourselves down …

And discovered that this was not, in fact, the undiscovered hit of the summer. No, this was the low budget, low concept revival of a show of which I can’t help but question the theatrical merits. Let’s think about it: a play about a deaf and blind kid … who plays pinball. Big excitement? Someone standing nearly stock still with their hands, at hip height, sort of slapping the air. This is not entertaining to watch. It was, however, extremely wrenching to see the scenes where he was being tortured by his relatives because of his disabilities … “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” is now rewritten as an extraordinarily sad song for me … but bullying isn’t musical fodder, either. In fact, the entire story of Tommy is just a bit of a disaster and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to put it on stage except as a curiousity. Perhaps what it needed was the ironic “Xanadu the Musical” treatment to really make it come alive.

And it’s worth revisiting this show for the same reason Xanadu needed to live again: the music is just astounding. But, unlike Sunny Afternoon, this production of Tommy did not take the opportunity to blow us out of our chairs with some of the best rock music ever written; no, even Pinball Wizard came off sounding flaccid. I don’t know how they did it, but I suspect they needed one more guitarist and, I don’t know, someone to turn the volume to 11.

The cast worked really hard and I can’t blame them for any of this – they didn’t choreograph it, put themselves in white, and make a religious icon out of a triangle. No, they looked out at a 2/3 empty auditorium and gave us their best, and rightly deserved the enthusiastic applause of the grey haired grans sitting in front of us. I just wish it could have been so much more and not just an underpowered revival of one of the most iconic musicals of the rock age. That much disappointment hurt.

(This review is for a performance that took place on August 14, 2015. It continues for about another week if you’re still interested, maybe until the 22nd or so. )

Review – My World Has Exploded A Little Bit – Camden Fringe Festival at Tristan Bates

August 14, 2015

I’ve been feeling sad about missing the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. That said, the opportunity to see excellent theater in London is in no way diminished by the annual grand exodus Oop North, as My World Has Exploded A Little Bit proves. Offered to me as “brave and humorous show that shines a brand new light on mortality,” I thought it sounded like fantastic counterprogramming to my usual light summer fare (circus, cabaret, burlesque, any outdoor event involving Pimms) and quickly made a reservation for one – plenty of time for saucy songs at the Soho Theater in the 9:30 PM slot.

At first, it seemed that I’d entered a bizarre pseudo-self help session, complete with wacky presenters (Bella Heesom, in glasses, and her accompanist and sidekick Esh Alladi) who shook our hands and welcomed us to their talk on “20 Steps to Beat Death” (or something like that, forgive me as I chose not to write it down). Just as we are settling into a night of slightly macabre humor, Bella pulls the rug out from under us: we’re actually not at a lecture, we’re about to be walked through how she dealt with the death of her father, from first announcement to the protracted death to the funeral and grieving.

If I wanted to keep with the way the show is structured, what I should have done is blurt out “BUT NO WAIT FUNNY BIT HERE” right after the word “father” in the above sentence, but I’m not going to other than, at this moment, to say that just when things start seeming really bleak, Bella and Esh frequently take a left turn and go back into the “self help”/lecture format. But really, this show is very much about walking alongside Bella as she goes down a very dark path. Theater is frequently shit at dealing with death – it’s kind of a story ending device, really, so deaths have to be quick in order for the forward momentum to continue – but Heesom does not flinch away at all of the bits and bobs, the icebergs and glaciers that come together to make the actual experience of dealing with an anticipated death. It’s something few people experience as early in life as Bella has, so it’s very helpful to live this experience with a guide, and all the better that it’s one who’s not there to rush you through a story but who is instead giving you an opportunity to live out something that, truthfully, it is better to be prepared for.

My World Has Exploded A Little BitI’ll repeat what she says. We are all going to die. I am going to die. You are going to die. Everyone you know is going to die. But for some reason, it still seems like a surprise, in part (I think) because humans don’t like to think about mortality. But it’s really helpful to do so; partially because (as per the advice given in this show) it lets you respond better when you have to deal with it, instead of finding yourself unable to make decisions or plan in any way; but more because it lets you live your life in a way that maximizes the greatest of gifts: the time you have to spend with people you love. Let’s get in a quote from the Flaming Lips:”Do you realize?, that everyone you know someday will die/And instead of saying all of your goodbyes, let them know/You realize that life goes fast” – and, to put in a word from Bella, tell them that you love them (or “vole” them if you have to resort to anagrams to make the words sound fresh).

I loved the useful, thoughtful advice Bella had to share with us about how to handle these really bad spots, and the way she dropped in some lovely bits of philosophical struggling with theism and even some math; but what I loved about this show the most was a chance to share Bella’s memories of some special people in her life: her mother and her father. Because, as she says, remembering people – keeping their memory alive – is one of the only ways you can keep the dead alive; and I was happy to be with her as we, as a group, took some time to remember what wonderful people they were. I was not at all comfortable about practicing hugging my neighbor, but I was happy as hell to sit in my front row chair with tears trickling down my face at sadness for Bella’s loss (and the way it tugs at my heart to know that yes, this too will me my, and our, fate one day). The comic was well counterbalanced with the tragic but the feeling I walked away from this show was, “I wish I could have known them so I could have told them both how wonderful they were and how much their daughter loved them.” And I desperately wanted a hankie. Nice work, Ms Heesom.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, August 13th, 2015. I promise you it’s actually life affirming while also not being stupid or shallow.)

Review – A Naughty Night with Noel Coward – Old Red Lion Theater

August 13, 2015

Frankly, it doesn’t take much to convince me to watch Noel Coward, but if I’d known in advance I was getting in two saucy plays in less than an hour, I would have beaten down the door of the Red Lion instead of waiting as long as I did to see it. I enjoy Coward’s writing quite a lot, but the chance to see some works that might have set off the censors really caught my attention. I mean, Coward has a reputation for raking up trouble, for dropping hints of (some of) his characters’ bisexuality and treating the “state of matrimony” as more of a “state of mind” – but in his mainstage shows, you barely get a hint of actual scandal. I’m pleased to say this sense of restraint is utterly discarded, like a filmy negligee,

The first play, “We Were Dancing,” had me laughing from about two minutes in, when Louise (Lianne Harvey) attempts to introduce the man she’s fallen madly in love with and realizes she doesn’t actually know his name. I thought it was hysterical that she could actually think she was in love, but her husband (John MacCormick)’s attempts to negotiate this field of landmines was even more funny. I felt we were supposed to double Louise’s ability to actually understand her emotions – the new beau, Karl Sandys (James Sindall) also claims it’s love – and in some ways the ending is both a bit of a relief and a reassurance to the audience that we were right to have doubts. The actors played it all very straight, which made it even merrier. Have a nice stiff drink beforehand so you can join in the fun.

Lianne Harvey and James Sindall

Lianne Harvey and James Sindall

Next up was “The Better Half,” which, per the program notes, was written for the London Grand Guignol theater. Although this is, once again, a play that makes fun of the institution of marriage, it’s actually quite valid in Grand Guignol due to its focus on manipulation and violence. However, the possibly depressing (or murderous) tack this could take is overwhelmed by Alice (Tracey Pickup)’s focus on the self-congratulatory, prideful smugness of her husband (Stephen Fawkes) – don’t we all know people like this, people who are so obsessed with being accepting and understanding that you just ache for them to get mad about anything, once? I certainly sympathized with Alice – although she was frighteningly sanguine about her husband’s teetering on the border of infidelity – and found the ending extremely satisfying. If only I could have jumped in and given the characters a little slap!

Adding to the general atmosphere was some very nice work at the piano from Mr Tom Self and a pair of songs from Mr Coward’s oeuvre – poignant and lovely to hear. So much entertainment and all over in about sixty minutes – just in time to refresh your drink. I’m sure Noel would have approved.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, August 8, 2015. It continues through August 29th.)

Review – Dandy Darkly’s “Trigger Happy” – CC Blooms, Edinburgh

August 12, 2015

My preparation for Dandy Darkly consisted of seeing a really cool photograph – like a disco juggalo version of Annie Oakley (the original Webcowgirl) – and the promise of an “all-American selection of satiric, horrific, homoerotic, patriotic tales of sex and death!” As an expat, I thought Dandy – whoever he was – sounded damned likely to be able to provide an entertaining evening, especially with a good dose of “good ole American sodomy” (his quote, my belief) sprinkled on top. I really had so little idea that if he had ridden in on an animatronic T-rex with a pack of pastel poodles doing circus tricks at his command, it might have all seemed quite commonplace, but instead I got a much rarer bird: the unexpectedly entertaining one person show which did not leave me with the desire to slap the performer until their brains rattled inside their head and their sense of self-importance deflated to merely the size of the solar system. No, Dandy Darkly would only get a smack from me in a fully consensual atmosphere in which safe words had been prenegotiated. Instead, it was drinks from the bar and luvvie promises to catch him the next time he was in town. Couldn’t you just get sick at the thought? I’d lost hope for the genre. He even alliterated.

But, really, there was something about the charming style of our glitterized celebutante with his gentle drawl and feeling of near iconic outsiderism that pulled me in right from the start. He knew as well as I do what a charming pile of lies hold up American culture and the American people, and he was going to aim his pop gun right between the eyes – BANG BANG! – and there goes another fine myth. The evening was, in fact, a series of short stories, told near-campfire style (“draw on up, kiddies, something wicked this way comes …”), each one creating its own dark world – world of reality and absurdity, clear fiction and near misses, drag queen rats mixing with broken celebrities and closet-case werewolf army assassins – a tossed salad of so many reconfigured metaphors that only the narrative provided the reality. I was absolutely locked in place as our fearsome conductor drove us out of the station into parts unknown, barely conscious of the extremely potent drink in my hands – and only when he stopped between stories to take a sip of water and have the merest of chats did I briefly come back down to earth, impatiently waiting for the voyage to recommence. I was hooked. And apparently he’s going to be doing this for the entirety of the Edinburgh fringe festival for free. You people don’t even know how lucky you are. Get on your brontosauri and get your asses over to CC Blooms – it’s time to let words blossom like corpse flowers in your fringe addled heads.

(This review is for the opening night performance on August 8th. Dandy Darkly’s Trigger Happy continues through August 30th.)