Archive for November, 2015

Review – Ben Hur – Tricycle Theater

November 24, 2015

The genius of The Thirty-Nine Steps (the play) was that it took a sweeping story and managed to turn it into a rip-roaring comedy, all performed on a nearly empty set by a cast of four playing a cast of about fifty. I loved this show and would constantly take visitors to see it with me during its long West End run; the jokes held up well and the mugging of the cast never failed to crack me up. It was also, I believed, an excellent example of “less is more” theater, the kind of stuff that assumes the audience has imagination and is willing – nay, eager – to be taken on a trip to fantasyland. So when I heard the same creative team was taking on Ben Hur, and that it was going to be getting a run at the Tricyle (which is just a bit smaller than the Criterion), I was pretty darned excited – so excited I got a ticket for first preview, because some good things can’t wait.

Again, we’ve got a big story – bigger, even, than The Thirty-Nine Steps (it does include a sea battle and a chariot race) – and very, very few actors. We were given a clue as to how the night would progress at the beginning, when the “writer” (John Hopkins – also Ben Hur) came out to introduce his show … and his costar (the stunningly multi-roled Alix Dunmore). Here, clearly, was a person (the writer) with many, many problems, and the victim(/love interest) of some of his problems – and we, the audience, were going to watch his ego and their relationship play out on stage. This bit of farce was an extra dimension to the evening’s affairs – and what fun!

A lot of the joy in watching this show is not just in the silly jokes and bad puns but in the visual humor, and to that extent it seems like a lot of the fun would be taken away from you if I said how they took care of things like the sea battles and the chariot races. I think, though, I’m safe in saying that AUDIENCE PARTICIPATION DOES OCCUR and it really heightens the moment. I made my theatrical debut that night … lines and everything!

Just when you think the jokes have been played out, the second act manages to raise things to a whole new level and the laughing starting coming out thick and heavy. Earlier, though, I felt things were a bit layered on and didn’t feel natural – but I’m willing to ascribe this to having seen it in the very early days. These people know what they’re doing and could wring laughter out of a cabinet member from the Kremlin. I’m more than willing to believe things have tightened up and will continue to become shinier throughout the run.

That said, I believe this show just isn’t going to be up there with The Thirty-Nine Steps, and I blame the source material. A book that was ultimately written as a kind of a sideline to telling the story of Jesus for me has a bit of the humor wrung out of it at the start, and while we can have a laugh here and there at the religious schtick shoved in (as much to sell the original, I believe, as anything else), I found these elements just not nearly as comic as they needed to be to bring me along. In fact, the whole thing would have been a lot better if the Jesus bits were cut out as the comedy failed during these moments. Still, the actors were very good, and it will be tighter, and, in days like these, don’t we all need a good laugh, not to mention lawn-mower powered chariots?

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Thursday, November 19th, 2015. It continues through January 9th and is really a great alternative to panto.)

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Review – The Father – Tricycle Theatre at Wyndham’s, London

November 17, 2015

I didn’t catch The Father when it was at the Tricycle, so I completely missed any hype about it – best new French play of 2014 – but I did see some nice things said about it once it made it to Wyndhams. One of the things I found appealing was a 90 minute running time – ideal for after work – and, as it turns out, rather affordable seats (my back of stalls jobs were £35 and clearly cheaper can be had as the upper sections of the house were closed off when I went).

So …. we have a father (Kenneth Cranham) and his daughter, Anne (Claire Skinner), and dad is obviously a bit unwell as Anne’s need to have a carer around. Dad’s been fighting with the carer – she’s a thief! Or, actually, she’s not – Dad just forgot where he put his watch. And (scene change) maybe Anne isn’t really his daughter, maybe it’s a woman with brown hair. And what about dinner? Didn’t Anne’s husband go into the kitchen with a chicken? But Anne says she hasn’t been married for years … so who’s this other guy? And who is making Dad cry? (And can someone please tell me why Dad prefers his other daughter so much and why he has to constantly mention she’s the one he really loves?)

A lot of elements of this play are just perfect. I loved the way it showed the way time elides for those with Alzheimers, backwards, forwards, sideways, while simultaneously there are moments of pure lucidity that make both the patient and the carer unsure of just how well the patient is. I also enjoyed the realistic depiction of the truly incredible stress it puts on all the family – from the carer who’s life is taken over, to the partner who’s totally lost the ability to have a family life other than as a carer’s adjunct, to the father who simultaneously argues his wellness while abusing people and is also himself the victim of abuse.

However, the desire to show non-narrative time wound up leaving me feeling too jounced around. While I got answers to some questions, I was never sure about most of the ones concerning the daughter, and the experience of time began to seem to me more important than actually expressing a plot. In the end, this was an interesting play, but not, I think, an excellent one; still, it was worth my time and certainly deserves its West End run.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, November 16, 2015. It continues through November 21st.)

Mini-review – The Hairy Ape – Old Vic Theater

November 10, 2015

Over the last few years, I’ve really warmed up to the work of Eugene O’Neill. There have been hits and misses, but the combined impact of Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah! Wilderness can hardly be put into words. His ability to create characters that burn into your memory as icons of pure being … it’s like they walked from the world of Plato’s Ideals into our own, casting their shadows across the entire planet of twentieth century theater.

And then, well, he’s also got what I’d consider lesser works: bombastic, lecturing, obsessed with structure and politics over character and plot. Even knowing this, I queued up for The Old Vic’s production of The Hairy Ape, which seemed, by all indicators, early enough in his career to be shackled with cement-like boots of drivel (and was promoted as being from his socialist era – how dull!). But at 90 minutes and with Bertie Carvel, well, I asked myself, how bad could it be?

This, obviously, was a question asked by many others, as I was able to get half priced second row seats on the day and much of the upper reaches of the theater was echoingly empty. The script seemed both stylized and preachy – a bit much of a combo – and the characters seemed to be drawn from a random sack of easy stereotypes (the brutal laborer – Bertie Carvel, the spoiled heiress – Rosie Sheehy, the cowardly socialist, the calculating … frankly, the only character that showed any freedom was the ape in the zoo). As Rosie Sheehy pronounced her character’s easy, snobby assessments of the struggling workers she mocked – and as these characters showed themselves to be brutal, lazy, and ignorant – I felt that O’Neill himself was struggling to make a play that was not cartoonish. He seemed to have neither sympathy for nor insight into any of the people he was attempting to create on stage, and the effect was coming off rather like a silent movie, with Snidely Whiplash expected any moment.

And yet … somehow the actor’s heightened performances started working with the overblown dialogue, and, combined with the exaggeration of the set (so much acid yellow!) and movement, we started moving into a different realm … where the unreality became surreality, and Yank’s journey from the pits of the ship to the heights of New York society started to cohere. It was meant to be extreme, it was meant to be over the top, and, well, even though the dialogue was crap if you were going for naturalism, the second you made it into Expressionism it started to work.

And this was a ride I was willing to go along for. I cast aside my need for believable characters and set down to watch a morality tale set in 1920s New York – and tremendously enjoyed myself. I loved the over the top set pieces, I loved the ridiculousness, I bought into Carvel’s exaggerations of his horribly over the top man of muscles. And then, suddenly, it was over – much in the way you might have predicted it ending from about ten minutes in – and I found, even though this play would have been intolerable on paper, somehow Richard Jones had made the damn thing work on stage. Good on you, I say, and don’t miss it – the chances you’ll ever see such an enjoyable production of this show at any point in the rest of your life is slim.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 4th, 2015. It continues through November 21st.)

Mini-review – Kwaidan – Rouge28 Theatre at the 2015 Suspense Festival

November 8, 2015

A Japanese ghost story told through the medium of Bunraku puppetry? This was the filter on the Suspense puppetry festival that led me to Kwaidan, and I was pretty excited about it. There are many sort of specialisms in the world of Japanese puppetry, and while I’ll go see all of them I’m particulary fond of bunraku, in which black clad puppeteers manipulate large puppets, the performers’ faces hidden by veils, their bodies disappearing into the shadows. It allows for a very different kind of movement that marionette or rod puppets, and I find the style allows the fourth wall to fall away easily. In addition, traditional bunraku puppets are made to a high degree of artistry, and the stories they are used to tell are ones that really capture my imagination. So, all in all, this show was one I was very interested in, even if I thought it was a bit more modern Japanese horror movie than traditional Japanese folk art.

I could have hardly asked for a better combination of form and content. The story is of a young woman (played, frequently, by an actress, not a puppet) who returns to her childhood home: it is apparently full of ghosts … or are they dreams? Or memories? She looks into a mirror – a lifesized puppet looks back at her, creepy as hell. Then it’s a mirror again. She tries to open a closet door – it won’t budge. Is it stuck or is something holding the door shut? As the story continues, we flip back and forth between the present and the past, and are left to make sense of what we see. A little girl is crying in the closet; a beautiful young woman walks through the apartment, leaving notes in a diary … that the modern young woman sees when she wakes up. The transition between humans and puppets is handled marvelously, with fantastic use of the darkness of doorways, the ambiguity of scrims, and the pitch black borders between rooms.

In the end, we’re mostly clear about what the haunting is about, although the story goes on a tiny bit too long and a bit where the “Red Rose” does a strip tease as a live actoress’s head above a tiny puppet’s body hit an unfortunately comic note when the tension was at its highest. I ended wondering if the house was just full of “hungry ghosts” or if the whole thing was supposed to be a nightmare or to represent the loss of sanity of the lead character – but still, I’d had chills enough for an evening and hugely enjoyed myself, so on that basis I think Kwaidan was very much a success.

(This review is for the first performance, on Thursday, November 5, 2015. It is touring and will be at the Manipulate Festival in Norwich.)

Review – The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak – Wattle and Daub at New Diorama Theater

November 5, 2015

I wasn’t planning on writing this up, since I saw the second of its two performances at the Suspense Festival, but since they announced before the show that it is at the start of a tour … I will go ahead and throw my two cents in. I mean, I am (as a reviewer) a specialist in both puppetry and (to a lesser extent) opera … who better to provide an opinion?

Let’s be honest, although it was billed as “a monstrous chamber opera,” I did NOT take this seriously and thought it was a metaphor for an intimate show with a grotesque topic. No, I was quite wrong: Tarrare is very much an opera, performed with Bunraku-esque puppets, and sung by real live humans right there on stage (with a violinist and pianist providing accompaniment). I was not expecting singing, and I was not expecting it to go for 1:45 (with a 20 minute interval). And, while I was expecting Tararre (the puppet) to eat a bunch of strange things, I was not expecting him to choke them down like a cat hawking up a hairball, or, indeed, for him to vomit them back up again. This show was hard on the stomach.

Still, this unusual story, of am 18th century French man who was an sideshow attraction and spy, was an excellent choice for this format; no real actor could manage the feats Tarrare drew notoriety for, and the availability of actors with detachable ribcages and debilitating medical conditions is not as strong as one might expect even in London. So while Tarrare is being tortured in a (?) Prussian jail, we get to see him shit out the evidence (“He’s shitting/He’s shitting” definitely an opera lyric for the bucket list); and when he is with his sideshow friends, we get to hear two fantastic duets for conjoined twins (also a bucket list item in the opera world), which made me think that perhaps Geek Love might be a good choice for this group to take on next. Creatures in jars that can become singing and dancing parts of the cast is the kind of thing you’d expect only in puppetry; lead characters eating and vomiting up cats likewise benefitted from not being done by fleshly actors.

Musically, I found this actually quite digestible, with interesting falsetto singing from the two men (Daniel Harlock and Michael Longden) that didn’t quite hit the countertenor level of quality but which was still very serviceable, despite starting out a bit unintelligible: I wished for supertitles or a printed lyrics sheet.

But, you know, how was it as a PUPPET show? For me, despite the occasionally irritating sightlines (even from row 5, which unlike row 2 was elevated), the puppet movement was flawless: even the elongation and retraction of the necks of the twins had its own logic, and the shuffling of the fat baby puppet was utterly engrossing. Meanwhile the artistry of the puppets and various puppet bits was high quality and had a very finished, thought-out look to it; we were not fixed too strongly in history but were locked right in to humans with emotions that, in fact, transcended their highly limited physical forms – captured well in their faces, words and bodies.

Although my suspicion is that Tarrare the Freak will actually be continuing its evolution as it starts its tour, it is well worth seeing even in its current form. I’m glad I made the effort and I hope it does well as it reaches more audiences.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015 at the Suspense Festival in London.)