Archive for December, 2015

Review – Red Riding Hood – Greenwich Theater

December 27, 2015

I thought I’d hit all of the panto staples, but it turns out Red Riding Hood was completely new to me, so, whether it was for its tradition of excellence or because i wanted to try a brand new panto flavor, Greenwich Theater was a must visit show for me this year. Always done on a shoe string, their pantos have the benefit of an extraordinary dame and writer in Andrew Pollard. His knowledge of panto history and good panto structure has been endlessly on display over the several years I’ve been going to see his productions, and, in a sea of identikit productions with talentless pseudo-celebrities and an emphasis on glitz over wits, Greenwich has floated right to the top, horrible puns, silly costumes and all.

So, what is the plot of Red Riding Hood? Right in keeping with December’s headlines about Tory end of session giveaways, Red Riding Hood features an evil villain, Count Frackula, who’s headed to Red’s forest home with the plan of destroying it to get at the gas underneath. Red’s grandmother (played by Pollard) runs a theater in the forest, near a ski resort where … um … the three little pigs work and … um … a charming prince has come in disguise to find a bride. Really, the story is a bit of a mish mash, but we have comedy, romance, and villainry, so despite my confusion as to how the actual story was supposed to work (we’ve got two hours to fill after all and the traditional story just doesn’t have that much to it).

Pollard once again delivered, with fantastic dame outfits, songs that captured pop moments of the past and present, and piles of improv, which fairly destroyed the handsome prince’s ability to finish scenes but turned the evil count into an even more hysterical character than he would have been without the silver spangled codpiece (and a physique that filled out his black spandex body suit quite nicely, phwoar!). And while the three pigs might have been a fairly disposable add-on, Alim Jayda’s acrobatic performance as the boy pig took a side role and gave it real pizazz. Add on squirt guns, bondage, lycanthropy, and what do you have? A darn good time out. If every panto were this enjoyable, they wouldn’t be so quickly dismissed as seasonal children’s theater but recognized as the staple of British theater that they are. No wonder they sell out so regularly!

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 18th, 2015. It continues through January 10th.)

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Review – Robin Hood – Theater Royal Stratford East

December 20, 2015

With its racially mixed, working class vibe, Theater Royal Stratford is ideally placed to hit the same sweet spot at the Hackney Empire panto. Their audience is reflected in their jokes, their casting, their music and their plotlines, with the villains frequently figures who have caused trouble locally  (properly developers, for example). It’s all done on a shoestring, with simple costumes and no celebrity casting – in the goal, I believe, of keeping it locally affordable. So Wimbledon and Richmond get Pamela Anderson and Priscilla Presley (or their ilk) and deluxed sequinned glamour; it’s reflected in the sky high ticket prices.  I want wit and enthusiasm, anyway, and smaller pantos, with their emphasis on creating a good show, seem to deliver more of what I want.

That said: what happened with this year’s Stratford Panto? There was, as near as I can tell, no current political jokes; the songs, while all original, were actually not as good as if they’d been clever rehacks of popular hits; and the only jokes that seemed aimed at the adults in the crowd were a few tacky jokes about body parts. What we did get were fart jokes, sword play, and a comical bit with a squasher. It was a kids’ show top to bottom and I felt a bit trapped in it: the huge highlights were King Richard (Ashley Campbell)’s tap dancing number and the dame, “Nursey” (Derek Elroy)’s fantastic turn hassling a random audience member to help out with a gag (and also steal him away from his wife). This improv scene was giggle-tastic and to me seemed a sign of what might have happened more often if the cast had been a bit more playful. But instead … well, it was dry where it should have been gushy, and perhaps a bit too concerned with getting its politics correct instead of going for a satisfying evening. I mean, it’s fine that Marion (Nadia Albina) can out-shoot Robin Hood (Oliver Wellington) but no big, pretty wedding scene at the end? It was disappointing. I still hope it does alright for the theater but it was the first time I’d ever been to a panto and really, really felt like I was just at a kids’ show.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Wednesday, December 16th, 2015. It continues through January 23rd.)

Review – Mirror, Mirror – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

December 16, 2015

With the wealth of musical talent at their disposal, Charles Court Opera has the ability to make a panto that’s far above the average. They also have a much more diverse audience – with their focus on smaller venues, rather than coming up with ultra family friendly fare suitable for the kiddies, they can have some fun with lots of clever songs and jokes that aim for a higher bar and still have one sold-out night after another. Their confidence and style was perfectly captured in Snow White’s first appearance : silhouetted, stilleto-eted, loudly fêted. Okay, John Savournin was in flats, but still: here was a fabulous dame worth cheering for, all six foot three of her.

As Snow White, Mirror Mirror took quite a few diversions from the typical story: Snowy isn’t a virginal lass abused by the evil queen and saved by the huntsman; no, she’s a sexy widow (of Barry White, natch) who’s buried herself in domestic service (to dwarves) to escape her loneliness. Then along comes a prince with a fortune (Amy J Payne), and suddenly Queenie (Nicola Jolley) and Snow are in competition….

The jokes came thick and plentifully. Actually some of them would have used that line as a lead in to a gag: God knows, “My perfume? It’s called ‘Come to me’,” and its punchline were probably both old as the hills and entirely unsuitable for a family audience: it nearly unseated the prince and I can’t bear to repeat it. More clever (but not as hysterics inducing) was a bit at the beginning where Mrs. White is bleeped as she introduces the dwarves, then is obliged to tell us that due to the fear of being sued, most of them will need to be known my humorous approximations of the more famous monikers given to them by a certain Hollywood animation giant. This all leads into a great schtick in which Matthew Kellet comes on as each of the dwarves, wearing an only-slightly modified costume for each. (Ultimately this is a set up for a great sight gag at the end. These are some clever people. I won’t tell you what it is so you can enjoy it.)

To shake up the story a bit, Savournin has given the queen several more opportunities to interfere in Snowy’s househould, including spell casting (to the dismay of the prince’s valet, Andrea Tweedale, whose superb singing voice made me wish she’d been given a bigger part), a fatality-inducing DIY episode (never did Disney have the queen depicted as a plumber), and then finally, well, something with an apple, but the entire plot was being deconstructed into something about lost love and would Snow ever get over Barry.

It was all extremely ludicrous and even better because of the fabulous song craft, which skewered, “My Heart Goes Boom,” “Candle in the Wind,” and “You Make Me Feel (like a natural woman)” sung in such a deep voice I was starting to cry. And there were horrible puns, a candy toss, a sploosh scene, and enough political jokes to keep us on our toes. Could there be a more perfect panto? I’d buy tickets for next year’s today if they were on sale now.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, December 12, 2015. It continues through January 9th.)

Mini-Review – Victorian and Gay – Hope Theatre

December 13, 2015

Although I’m unfamiliar with “Horrible Histories,” the description of Victorian and Gay (at the Hope Theater) really caught my eye. I’m a fan of the Victorian era (especially the clothing), so an “immersive, no-holds-barred seasonal celebration, for adult eyes only” sounded just fabulous, even more so with the promise of “lewd caroling and bawdy bacchanalia.” Bring on the hoop skirts and fill up the punch bowl, I am ready for some fun!

We started downstairs, where our performers joined the pub patrons of The Hope for a bit of flirting and silliness. I was … well, not impressed by the costumes. It’s not fair, I’ve spent years studying the details of Victorian dresses, jewelry, and accessories, and it was all …. evocative but slap dash. Especially the hair. I figured, though, most productions can’t afford to spent 500 quid per person getting everything right, so decided to accept that I was getting an “evocation” and headed upstairs.

We were greeted in a living room set up with a piano and a Christmas tree and chairs arranged in a circle, the cast members visiting with us (and drinking rather a lot). We had two sisters (Steffi Walker and Bethany Greenwood), a mouthy Englishman (Gideon – Monty Jones), an expansive American pianist (Tom Jack Merivale) and a bad tempered, Welsh servant (Lottie Davies). The sense of it being Victorian was completely falling apart for me … nobody’s behavior was right, there was too much drinking, and the number of jokes about the “pianist” and other bits of sexual innuendo were funny (sort of) but really not believable during an era when pianos and tables would have their feet covered so no one would see their ankles.

Moving on to the entertainment, we had some Welsh/Scottish jokes (made at the expense of the maid), some Catholic bashing (by the maid), an abbreviated Christmas Carol (almost funny), and a completely hysterical skit with the maid playing Queen Victoria and Gideon her hapless consort – hapless insofar as he is just being given a “Prince Albert” ring. We ended with a Nativity pageant that had about half of the audience participating. And at some point, we were told a little story about how the “sisters,” Lady Ermintrude and Lady Griselda, were actually widowed sisters in law who were in love with each other. This explained why they were acting progressively more lascivious with each other, but in no way gave any historical focus for the entire thing.

Given the excellence (and genuine humor!) of this year’s production of Fanny and Stella, it seems to me that Victorian and Gay could really have done so much more with the source material available to them instead of just lumping it all of this miscellany together without doing good period research and trying to use that specificity to make it come to life. In the end, it felt like one of those horrible Christmas puddings that has far too much fat and has forgotten to get the proportions of the ingredients right as if enough rum will take care of everything. Oh well, at least I got to see my companion dressed as a donkey, and that was a little memory I’ll enjoy far longer than anything else in this show.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on Thursday, December 10, 2015. It continues through December 31st.)

Preview – The Xmas Carol – Vulcanello Productions at The Old Red Lion

December 10, 2015

It’s that time of the year when I try to hit my three holiday touch points – one Nutcracker, one Messiah, and one Christmas Carol. Two years ago I went a bit overboard and saw three, and had this revelation: this story matters, not because times have changed since it was written, but because they haven’t. The rich still put themselves above the poor, and think they deserve what they get; in fact, the entire politics of the previous five years has been about putting the poor down for not having enough money, depicting them as scroungers. A Scrooge today wouldn’t just not give money to the poor, he’d help write a law that would take away Tiny Tim’s wheelchair … and his dad, if he were an immigrant. Maybe they could turn to reality TV to make up the difference in what they were legally denied … but chances are, they’d just never get it.

This, then, was my inspiration for writing The Xmas Carol, a modern-day political satire inspired by Dickens’ classic. I thought I’d seen it enough times to understand it, but now, wow, I can tell you I know it inside and out. And I still think it’s a story that matters – not just because of its great characters, but because of its great message, which isn’t about Christmas – it’s about the enduring value of caring for one another. I think it’s gone a bit out of style, but I’d like to change that, so I wrote a little play about it, and this Sunday and Monday it’s going to be happening at The Old Red Lion.

It would be nice to see you there. Won’t you join us?

(I apologize for not blogging much over the last few weeks, but, really, this show thing has been keeping me really busy. Don’t worry, I’ll try to make up for it in the next 10 days.)

Review – Hapgood – Hampstead Theater

December 10, 2015

The Hampstead is right in its happy place with this productionl of Hapgood, a revival of a Stoppard work from the balancing point in his career where he was still riding the line between intellectual inquiry and entertainment in his plays. Written twenty years after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead but a mere five years before Arcadia, Hapgood comes from a richly productive time in Stoppard’s life where I imagine a little dalliance in something light seemed like a refreshing change. So for the audience, we get a fast-paced night of guns, deceit, and triple crosses, with some chewy lectures on particle physics that must have seemed zingily fresh when new but which come across as a bit quaint post-Constellations (I mean, who doesn’t know about Heisenberg and make jokes about dead cats in a box these days?). It’s idea for the Hampstead crowd, which I fancy considers itself up on intellectual concerns yet still desirous of entertainment whilst in the theater: they wants jokes that they can feel smug about laughing at – but they still want jokes.

Hapgood posits a single mother working for MI6 in charge of important operations as the cold war is winding itself up. We are given a few mysteries (none of which is how did a woman advance so far in those less-enlightened days; another is how did a “bit of rough” become an expert in the experimental application of dark matter?), most of which center around “who is loyal to whom,” with “whom” being either a country or (more interestingly) a person. The loyalties of the various spies within the agency are under scrutiny, and we, the audience, debate which of the various spies is loyal to which of their coworkers and which to the UK/US versus Russia. We are also given a mystery about an exchange of briefcases in a bathroom at the beginning of the show, and a delightful logic puzzle that introduces the concept of twinnage as a solution for someone being in two places at the same place; does it make the math work? Interval drinks while we debate.

Lisa Dillon has a great time playing top spy Mrs Hapgood, cheering her son on in his rugby games in one scene, repulsing ex-lover(s?) in a shooting gallery in the next. Fellow spy Blair (Tim McMullan) doesn’t seem nearly as well rounded by comparison, but his own woodenness was nicely rounded by the extravagant emotions of Russian physicist Kerner (Alec Newman). I suspect Stoppard cared more about his character than nearly any of the others, as he’s the one used to spout off most of the scientific blather; it seems simultaneously normal and somewhat boring to listen to someone discuss that passionately his work, and I think Stoppard must have wanted him to seem very real; in some ways more real than everyone else in the play. He is the one we are meant to observe; as we focus on him, the direction of all of the other (unobserved) particles becomes merely a question of proper equations, this relationship x this chemistry = this outcome.

Through a thirty-year lens, this play has become charming and nostalgic; politics and science and plays have all moved on since this was written, and it seems a cuddly little toy from a day when people thought these things really matters. Stoppard doesn’t care about making his plays watchable anymore; I look to Scarlett Thomas when I want to think about the underpinnings of the world. But for a good night out – at just under 2 1/2 hours running time – Hapgood does deliver the goods.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Decmeber 8, 2015. It continues through January 23rd. Might I suggest you consider the Caryl Churchill play at the National if you really want something intellectually challenging: it’s a bargain at £15 a pop.)

Review – Wonder.land – National Theater

December 1, 2015

Last night’s performance of Wonder.land (“Wonder Dot Land”) was a first for me in many ways: an hour into the performance, a disturbance upstairs proceeded to get louder and louder until the lights started coming up and a black dressed stage manager type announced to the performers, “Ladies, stop the show.” And the Red Queen and Alice paused, said about one further word, then walked off the set. An audience member had taken ill, and in the ten minutes of nervous mumbling and staring that followed as he (or she) was attended to by a first aider and then taken out of the auditorium, we had some time to discuss what had been going on in this “Alice for the online generation.”

Spectacle: yes, there’d been a fair bit of it, including some exquisite costumes (wonderfully previewed in Vogue); rotating, neon lit skyscrapers; and so, so much video (about which more later). The story – of an Aly (Lois Chimimba) who lives in a broken home and goes to a dingy (and somewhat violent) high school – is substantially about online adventures, both in terms of social networking stuff (Facebook and Twitter) and the interactive online games that provide opportunities to make real friendships. It also hits on some extremely fresh topics: the truth of how awful social media bullying can be (uploading videos of someone being beaten up in the girl’s bathroom; posting ugly shots of them to be mocked on Facebook; getting a hate campaign organized online); the vicious impact of online gambling; the importance of the parallel cyber world that exists around us all of the time even if “the adults” want to pretend it’s not there and it doesn’t matter.

Taking the Alice story and making it the story of one girl’s online adventures is interesting, but, I think, a tale profoundly unsuited to be told in theatrical format. Alice benefits from updating, and it’s always nice to see the familiar characters revisited, but this tale of a girl attempting to get back a stolen identity never manages to pack an emotional punch. It is also burdened down with affirmative messages (“Accept yourself! Know yourself! Be yourself!”) that I felt watered down the narrative to the point of floppiness. Alice’s various online friends fail to have any purpose other than giving her someone else to bounce off of besides the bullies in her school; so why are they even there? The most real parts of the story wind up taking place in the girls’ toilets, where Aly is bullied and then winds up befriending another student who is also trying to escape bullying.

So somewhere in there is a story or three, and nowhere any songs worth remembering or singing, and EVERYTHING is polluted by the excess of video projections, which succeed exactly once in creating a neat and difficult effect (Alice falling down a tunnel) but otherwise look crappy (c’mon, we all watch Pixar, and while I realize these graphics cost real money unfortunately they didn’t have impact proportionate to their expense). I couldn’t help thinking longingly of The Light Princess, with its forest of waterplants that had me gasping with delight; and of Coram Boy, with its amazing underwater scene – all done without benefit of video technology. And, finally, I thought of Opera Holland Park’s shoe string budget Alice in Wonderland opera, which had cardboard sets but very engaging characters and a nice modern twist at all and basically left Wonder.land gasping in all its high res glory.

I’m guessing there’s an SF book about stolen identities hiding in Wonder.land (I’ve probably read four of them just this year), maybe a fun little video game, but what there wasn’t was a compelling night of theater. In fact, watching all of the whiny kids (on stage) standing around playing with their phones complaining about their shit lives, I couldn’t help but think I was stuck in a theater with everything I sought to escape: a world where people look down instead of up, in instead of out, and away instead of toward. It might be suitable for ten year olds who are dazzled by a bunch of bling; but I suspect this prize free Kinder egg will be forgotten hardly before the final curtain drops.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on November 30th, 2015. It continues through April, 2016. This was also the first time I saw a selfie stick used in a play. And I did go back after the interval, well fortified with wine and chocolate. Good job to the actors and crew for managing a very difficult situation last night.)