Archive for September, 2015

Preview – Hofesh Shechter Festival #hofest and Review – Barbarians – Sadlers Wells

September 22, 2015

I’ve been watching Hofesh Shechter since he first burst onto the stage in the Linbury Studio in 2006 with “Uprising.” It blew me out of my seat – for once, I was seeing a wholly masculine approach to dance that felt uncontaminated by balletic vocabulary – dancing suitable for soldiers, for football players, for the wonderful athletes that male dancers are. It felt like I was getting a little window into how men act with each other when they’re not competing for women (or fighting off wizards) – it was a natural, grown moment that felt completely at ease with itself, like two grown men playwrestling and laughing.

Now it’s nearly 10 years later, and we have the good luck of an entire festival of Shecter’s work in London. It looks like a chance to see to what heights he can soar – or, possibly, where the limitations are on his current capability. There’s certainly no limit to its scope, which would be challenging to any choreographer. It started with a new work at Sadler’s Wells – Barbarians, which opened Friday, September 18th – and ends with a revisit of Political Mother (which I saw in 2010), being staged rather daringly in Brixton at the O2. In between, he’s hitting the bread-and-butter – a restaging of two old works (“Cult” and “Fragments”) as well as one new – done by his youth company at an East London location – and also shooting for the stars with a slot at the Royal Opera House for the opera Oprheus and Euridice (by Gluck).

Now, picture me, people. Baroque music is my little embarrassing fandom I tend to live in by myself, amidst the flock of silver haired regulars. I don’t see them at rock music dance shows (except for poor old Clement Crisp); they ignore me when I’m getting my viola da gamba groove on. But I was going to get BOTH at the SAME TIME in one show. You know I went and got a ticket as soon as I found out. Awesome baroque opera slamming face to face with a fully bad assed, in the now, ultra modern choreographer? It’s the kind of thing that makes me go LIVING IN LONDON IS AWESOME!

Meanwhile, I’ve been to Barbarians (thanks to a kindly invite from a publicist) and my thought is: it’s a bit of a work in progress, and it’s not surprising that it would be given that Mr Shechter is probably just a little bit busy right now, and in this case, if I had “Sadlers Wells where everyone loves me” versus “Royal Opera I need to prove myself this isn’t entirely my comfort zone and the world is watching,” well, I’d be making sure that I kicked ass for the opera. It’s in three parts, which look like 1) the ones where the people wear white, a computer voice talks to them, and for some reason the music of Marin Marais plays between more crunchy stuff – 2) the part where people wear gold and talk to the audience – 3) the bit where it’s a bit of a male/female duet, the man wearing lederhosen. There’s some existential stuff where the computer voice talks to Shechter, giving him an opportunity to say that he’s choreographing a mid-life crisis – gold lame body suits being perfect for this – and beautiful moments where bodies gleam in the (asthma-attack inducing) smoke. The lights are always impeccable, the sound design is perfect (if too loud) … but the dance to me felt flabby and in need of cutting. Also, I consider both flashing lights in the audience’s eyes and dancers speaking to be shorthand that says, “I need to impress you but I have run out of ideas, so I will blind you and then I will have people talk to you because I wasn’t able to say what I wanted to in movement.” I’m okay being confused or needing to think about what I’ve seen, but I hate very much having things literally explained to me. Unless it involves strange curses and possibly wizards, in which case it just might be necessary.

Anyway, there’s three more events happening in this season, and I consider it all a tremendous chance to catch up with and enjoy one of the best choreographers out there. See what you’ve missed, catch where he is aspiring to, see if he makes it – if nothing else, I promise it won’t be boring.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, September 18, 2015. Barbarians continues through Friday, September 25th.

Review – Kinky Boots – Adelphi Theater

September 17, 2015

The biggest opening of the fall theater season in London this year has got to be Kinky Boots, which has a huge ad campaign (buses, Underground and billboards) raising the profile all over the capitol. This is, of course, following on its huge Broadway success. Odd, isn’t it, that a quirky little feel good Brit movie was turned into a US musical? I was frankly mystified by the whole thing. First, I’d never seen the movie, so what in the world was a musical about shoes supposed to be about? Later, I saw the movie, and my question is now: why in the world would a nearly tune free movie about a man trying to rescue a shoe factory in England ever get chosen as a subject for a big musical … on Broadway? These questions were, however, mostly put to bed when I saw a brief clip of the Tonys (which I encourage you to find yourself): the scene at the end of Act 1 (to the song “Everybody Say Yeah”) in which the whole shoe factory is boogying on moving conveyor belts was so hyperactive that I felt adamant that I would see this show myself someday, come rain, shine, or a trip to the East Coast. I was even motivated to see the movie, and I’ll say: it’s good, watch it if you can, but under no circumstances be put off from seeing this play because you don’t know the source material. Kinky Boots is an excellent night out that well repays the investment in time and money – the first thing to challenge Gypsy since Imelda’s opening night. (It’s almost literally across the street, by the way. I love living here.)

So: how is it all? Well, the plot is very focused on the factory owner Charlie Price’s (Killian Donnelly) attempt to rescue his inherited, failing family shoe business and very little on his personal relationships (despite Lauren – Amy Lennox – getting a great number about falling in love with her boss); there is also a fabulous theme throughout most of the second act about learning to accept people as they are. This is why Kinky Boots is a feel-god musical, because it feeds to us liberals’ hopes that, in a world full of diversity, we can really just all get along if we try. The characters are variously challenged by drag queen Lola (Matt Henry)’s confrontational attitude, but Lola provides so much complexity and personality that she (and also he) alone drives nearly the entire second half, as she/he grows into someone who takes him/herself seriously as a designer and starts spending a lot more time as a man.

Unfortunately bullying and hatred are never too far away, and we get to see this right down to the ugly core inside Charlie; but like every good Broadway fairy tale, Lola forgives him (as I would not have) and chooses to support the rest of the factory family by getting behind the big showcase in Milan. On the way, we get piles of amazing numbers, including with drag queens doing back flips in high heeled boots, and let me promise you the energy levels are HIGH. There was also a certain frisson as Lola explained to the butchest man in the factory that she, too, likes the ladies … and the ladies like her. All a bit 50 Shades of Gray but so much yummier.

I could go on and on as I was up and clapping at the end of the show (and nearly sang out loud at the end of the first act – or, rather, I think I did, I’m sorry, it was really a catchy song), but suffice it to say I thought my £45 tickets were a great deal and am planning on going back at £65. And you probably should, too. Kinky Boots has a helluva kick. BANG BANG!

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, September 8th, 2015. It will probably be booking for a very, very long time.)

Review – Casa Valentina – Southwark Playhouse

September 14, 2015

It’s Sunday night. I can write one review before work starts tomorrow. My options are: Kinky Boots, Briefs, or Casa Valentina (currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse). All feature men in dresses. But what gets the my time tonight? Casa Valentina, because even though I’m just a lowly blogger (and even though I had more fun at Kinky Boots), it needs me more.

Casa Valentina says it’s based on a true story, but the plot line still defies belief: in 1960s America, there were a group of men who used to travel to the Catskills to spend their holidays “en femme.” I had to look this up: it turns out the original was called Casa Susanna and was featured in a picture book you can find all over the internet (if you look). So it is real. But this is a dramatized version of what might have happened there. It starts out following one man arriving for his first weekend spent, with other people, dressed as a woman – and here you have a chance to see a real sisterhood among the various participants. But then a bigger story starts up, about money owed on the resort, one character’s desire to take the whole “sisterhood” mainstream (they had a magazine – this apparently was true), and a possible set up with the postal authorities for distribution of pornography. The stakes are raised, the arguments start, and Casa Valentina suddenly becomes a much more interesting play.

There’s a fair amount of wit and fine acting here (Gareth Snook as Charlotte was perfect in every moment), but to me the heart of the play is a debate on where this group sits with the rest of the world. There were laws in many states against transvestism, but Charlotte argues they can easily claim their privilege as heterosexual white men and rise above the hatred directed toward others … but can they, and should they? Watching a group who faced oppression argue about the ethics of oppression and the system of morality that held them down alongside many others was the highlight of my afternoon, and at one point the speechifying got so emotional that I wanted to stand up and clap when a character finally supported a vision that matched my own. It was so much more fully explored than the similar theme as treated in Kinky Boots – which is, after all, a musical comedy – and it elevated Casa Valentina right above the pool of mawkishness it could have slipped beneath and into an invigorating examination of the intersection of fantasy and politics.

The ending kind of collapsed on itself, but I can forgive that; Casa Valentina plumbed a rich vein of still valid debates, while leaving some of the deeper questions of the characters’ identities and evolutions unresolved and for us to pick through after the bows. Nice job, Southwark Playhouse: but please, if we’re going to buy into the characters, spend just a little more time prettying up those wigs – that dead cocker spaniel should never have come out from the turban.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Saturday, September 12, 2015. It continues through October 10th.)

Mini-Review – Photograph 51 – Noel Coward Theater

September 12, 2015

There is much to like about Photograph 51 from this burnt out critic’s point of view. Its running time is 90 minutes straight through, and it’s paced briskly, so it’s almost impossible to be bored before the end (unlike other plays on right now). It has affordably priced tickets (ten pounds in the front row of the gods, a completely acceptable place to watch this show as long as you don’t have vertigo). It’s actually about something intellectually interesting and unusual – the discovery of DNA – and has chosen as its a lead character the historical character – Rosalind Franklin – who was a very hard core scientist at a time when few women did this work. This character is, curiously, portrayed by Nicole Kidman.

The story is about how Dr. Franklin gets a job working with another researcher at King’s College in the early 50s. She has to deal with an inherently sexist, demeaning establishment; they (every other character is a man) have to deal with a cold, defensive intellectual who is extraordinarily stiff and uncompromising. Admittedly, much of this is due to the trials Franklin had to deal with to become and work as a scientist during difficult times (for women and for Jewish people); but in the memories she recalls of her childhood it seems like she was always driven, competitive, and not really concerned with connecting with others.

While the story people racing to discover DNA is, in itself, quite involving, Franklin, as a character, is a difficult person to muster sympathy for. She is wholly involved in her work to the exclusion of connection with other people, and I found that made it hard for me to connect with her. While the end of the play was, in its way, tragic, I found it hard to get very passionate about Franklin and left unmoved. Photograph 51 hit the bar of being worth the money I paid for it (and the time invested), but left me feeling distant from what I had seen – rather, again, like Song From Far Away, but for much less money. And just to make it all a little more ironic: the actual photograph was taken by a PhD student, Raymond Gosling.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Thursday, September 10th, 2015. It runs through November 21st.)

Mini-review – The Beaux’ Stratagem – National Theater (and National Theater Live)

September 9, 2015

I do like restoration comedy, and the allure of the £15 Travellex series is not to be undersold …

But maybe, sometimes, it is.

Full of silly schemes and two dimensional (yet still funny) characters, The Beaux’ Stratagem is a clever play, making good use of the trope of two brothers pretending (in turns) to be each other’s servant and the rather common plot line of men marrying in search of a fortune. We get bonus fun in the character of an innkeeper and his daughter – a good counterbalance for any actually moral, upperclass folks – and the comic servants at the house of the women the two beaux have their eyes on (one married and frustrated, the other a maiden, starry-eyed, and of good fortune).

It’s generally fun and has some great scene changes and a lot to laugh about, but oh MY the pacing just dropped like a … badly placed metaphor (your suggestions welcome) every time the ensemble had to sing. I was bored and fidgety – let’s be honest, this play is not short – but we could have moved forward at such a nicer clip if this stuff had been cut.

I’d meant to post this review earlier, to warn people who might have seen this as an NT Live performance, to say, for the cost of a cinema ticket, this is not worth your time; but it’s too late to warn these folks. For £15, this play skirts the edge of what I can tolerate. Despite its high quality of acting and zesty script, the length and the fat just add up to a rather indigestibly (and possibly indefensibly) long evening – worth the entry fee of the cheap tickets but only just. In retrospect, I could have skipped this evening and I don’t think I’d have lost much, and that’s not really what I’d call praise.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 31st, 2015. It continues through Sunday September 20th.)

Mini-review – Song from Far Away – Toneelgroep Amsterdam at The Young Vic

September 6, 2015

Right. You’re an international investment banker living in New York, and your brother has died.

You go home. Amsterdam. So many memories. Your family. So much baggage.

Sex. And death.

Watching this play, a love song to Amsterdam, an examination of how people handle the impact of death, I found myself admiring the simplistic design: a quarter room in which the protagonist sits, still, silhouetted; the other room, with beautifully reflective windows that sometimes show the snow and allow him to pontificate about what Dutch design has to say about Dutch values. And I slowly but surely found myself being lulled to sleep, a condition against which I fought courageously but not strongly enough.

I didn’t lose the words of this show as I flickered back and forth between consciousness and free association, but I was left as unmoved as the narrator. Death hurts; death is more than tears. Bella Heesom covered it far more emotively in My World Has Exploded a Little Bit and didn’t even need to charge us 35 quid or take her clothes off to get her point across; for Ivo van Hove to do both of these things and yet leave us at the end indifferent to our narrator seems positively criminal both artistically and creatively. The brevity of the piece did not stop other audience members from making their leaps at regaining those few lucky minutes granted to us on earth: I only wished I had joined them.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, September 5th, 2015. It continues through September 19th.)

Review – Fucking Men – King’s Head Theater

September 1, 2015

I know myself pretty well. I don’t just go to theater to be enlightened or entertained; sometimes I like to get a little sexy going, too. Usually I can get my bourgeois porn fix at the ballet or the circus; but theater aimed at gay men will often do it pretty well (and then there’s Briefs, a transvestite circus spectacular, that’s all the boxes ticked in one). In the case of Fucking Men (now on at the King’s Head Theater), I wasn’t entirely sure just how much of an enlightenment I would experience as to the world of gay men on the prowl; but I felt pretty sure that some pecs and glutes in compromising positions were very likely to be on offer. What better play for a first date, I ask you?

As it turns out, Fucking Men, despite its modern title, is just an update of La Ronde, that hundred year old chestnut about people sleeping with each other in a chain. It manages to follow the original structure to the tune that it’s a whore in the first and last scenes; but in between, we have a porn star, a student, an idealistic teacher, an actor … well, actually, looking at La Ronde, it looks like the structure has been followed pretty closely. Still, the devil is in the details, and the hard conversations about what it is that’s turning the various men on is entirely outside of the heterosexual narrative I’m familiar with and much, much steamier. We get crotch-rubbing, naked bums, and sexy torsos galore, not to mention implied oral sex and a fair amount of post coital what have you, with a bit of bonus drugs … my my!

When I could rip my eyes away from the candy on stage, I’m afraid I was occasionally finding the acting and even the dialogue a bit flat – the old married couple arguing was stiff, and the man who played the famous TV personality decidedly wooden – but the action still got a rise out of me. (And, truth be told, the playwright was hilarious, even if he was just too camp to be believed.) But I enjoyed myself anyway – sometimes it’s not all about having your intellectual funnybone tickled.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 28, 2015. It continues through September 26th.)