Archive for January, 2016

Review – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – National Theater

January 31, 2016

There are three playwrights whose works I collect obsessively, aiming for “the complete set.” Shakespeare isn’t one of them, oddly enough … but Ibsen and Pinter are. The third member of this set? American author August Wilson, whose work The Piano Lesson I first saw in a student production at Rutgers University in the mid-nineties. Then when I moved to Seattle, I had the opportunity to see one after another of his works – some of them debuts – at the Seattle Repertory Theater. I saw him hanging out writing at a local coffee shop. He was an icon of American history, a playwright with a compelling vision of documenting the African American experience in the 20th century.

I was afraid I’d never get to see his plays again after moving to the UK and The Pittsburgh Cycle would be forever left with gaps. But to my joy, the Young Vic decided to stage Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in 2010, and the game was back on … but with a long, long gap between that show and the National Theater’s production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which officially opens February 2nd. I couldn’t wait after five years of no Wilson, though, and I went and got a ticket for the first night of previews. It’s nearly the earliest in the cycle and it was the second one he wrote – and its subject, the fabulous (titular) 1920s blues singer, was one who I was eager to see on stage. I mean, this was IT. I was so there.

At the start, musicians Cutler (Clint Dyer), Levee (O-T Fagbenle), Toledo (Lucian Msamati), and Slow Drag (Giles Terera) sit in the green room and warm up while waiting for Ma herself to appear. The play begins to seem like it’s another Waiting for Godot – but with four musicians waiting for eternity to pay them a visit. I stepped back, though, and realized what I was actually seeing on stage: August Wilson giving us a chance to see how African Americans act with each other when they’re not under the gaze of white Americans (in this case the fractious recording studio bosses, Sturdyvant – Stuart McQuarrie – and Irvin – Finbar Lynch). Yeah, there’s some discussions about how black and white Americans deal with each other, but what’s more important is that it’s four men talking philosophy and bullshit, being friends with each other, talking about their aspirations, being themselves in a way that’s impossible to do when under the eye of The Man. Wilson’s given us a gift, a chance to be backstage on a number of levels, and as an audience member, my job was to sit back and enjoy.

This isn’t Beckett redux, though: Ma Rainey (Sharon D Clarke) does appear, and, oh my, she is SUCH a character, a million megawatts of talent with willpower that could send a rocket to Pluto and back. I can see why Wilson wanted to immortalize her in a play. Seeing a black woman fight to get what’s hers – and pushing back and the ridiculous barriers people try to fence her in with because of her race and gender – was inspirational. I was also amazed to see her toting Dussie Mae, a female groupie (Tamara Lawrance), with her into the recording session – giving us a bit of a chance to see a bit of life on the other side of that power divide. I have no idea to what extent any of this was based on historical evidence or if Wilson just cooked it up in his head – but Wilson (and Lawrance) has created an impressively real character and dynamic, and I was … well, I couldn’t tear my eyes off of the stage. Wow.

The ending … well, you guys know we’re not living in a very nice world, right? And Wilson reminds us that some things haven’t really changed a lot in (nearly) a hundred years, and gives us food for thought. It was a good payout for my financial and time (2:35) investment, and I hope the run is as successful as the quality of the cast and the material deserve.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on January 25th, 2016. It continues through May 18th.)

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Review – Botallack O’Clock – Third Man Theater at Old Red Lion Theater

January 25, 2016

Plays about artists. How do you do it, really? How do you show the creative process? Playwrights, well, they’re easy; and for some reason people have tended to think (especially in film) that painters can be shown … well, by showing them painting. But that’s not really showing the creative process. And I don’t think showing them dealing with their personal relationships really captures it either. So this play, to my relief, has taken a completely different approach to showing how an artist works.

But first, a little background. Roger Hilton was a painter who lived in the Cornish town of Botallack from 1965 until 1975, when he died. This play is set at some point during the last two years of his life, which he spent essentially living in his bed and painting over its side, onto sheets of paper on the floor and, apparently, drinking like a fish. It’s the wee hours of the morning and Hilton is bouncing around his flat my himself … well, more like flopping that bouncing. He’s talking about what he has to drink, he’s talking about the little things that interrupt his thinking, he grumbles about the cat drinking his paint water. And then he turns on his radio, and he starts talking to it.

Hilton’s ramblings (as imagined by Eddie Elks) cover a bit about his life and a bit about his art, but what I think they’re doing on a bigger level is showing the leaps that the artist makes from one idea to the next, from the mundane to the bigger arc of life to what it’s like to be an artist to … well, everywhere. To Lear, to women, to bears, to Beethoven. All of these things make the soup that forms his brain and somewhere out of this the art comes out. As a work of written theater, it’s quite a feat to string so much randomness together, but, as a work of watched theater … well, there may have been an arc but I didn’t see one for the character or a story; it was just like bobbing around in somebody else’s brain. Dan Frost was very convincing, but I found myself not really happy at going on this ride; rather, I was restless. What I think Botallack O’clock has created is a very convincing imagining of what really goes on in the mind of an artist; I’m just not convinced that I wanted to go on that trip with him.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, January 21, 2015. It continues through February 6th at the Old Red Lion.)

Review – Funny Girl – Menier Chocolate Factory (then Savoy)

January 9, 2016

It’s nice to go see a show that has been already committed to a transfer (not to mention sold out for the entire run), as this pretty well guarantees that you’re going in to see a winner – and even if it’s not a five star show, you get a whole extra star’s worth of smugness for being able to get in while the seats are cheap. Yep, I’m talking about Funny Girl, about the only show I can remember that not just sold out most of its run before it opened, but had sold out months of its transfer to the big stage as well. So, yes, when a passel of “well these are really restricted view but you can sort of see the stage most of the time” seats came up for grabs one day, I jumped all over it. You see, it pays to keep going back to the website and hoping something will come up, especially for tickets at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Since it opened, most of the complaining I have heard about Funny Girl has been about how it’s just not as good as the movie, really. And by this, what people mean (and sometimes say directly) is that Sheridan Smith is not as powerful a singer as Barbra Streisand. But you know what? She’s a more compelling Fanny Brice. There, I’ve said it, now complain away. The feeling I came with when I finished seeing the movie ever so many years ago was that it was hard to see much of a tragedy in Funny Girl because the lead came off so full of egotism that you couldn’t really root for her to succeed. I felt Barbra’s own ego was taking over her ability to portray Fanny as a sympathetic character, someone with any weaknesses at all.

But Sheridan Smith, now, she’s a whole ‘nother story. Every self confident word that comes out of her mouth has a tint of “but I’m not really all that, am I, I just want to be more,” and this makes her greatest flaw as a person, her blind love for rascal Nick Arnstein (Darius Campbell), a completely understandable gap for someone who desperately needs to feel like she is actually loved. Fanny needs to get external affirmation in a world where she is constantly struggling with not being beautiful enough. I mean, how many other women out there have struggled with being told “but you have a nice personality” when what you want to hear is “you’re so gorgeous I can’t believe my good luck that you’re even talking to me?” For the most handsome man she’s ever met to treat her like a shining diamond, well, I was absolutely sucked into Fanny’s happiness and, even knowing the end, I was able to buy the emotional arc of the story and this comes down to Sheridan Smith’s performance (well and a good book). I did not like the movie of Funny Girl but this live stage performance … well, it gives you all the feels, and that’s what I want when I fork over for a musical, to walk out swooning with emotion.

Let’s not pass over the rest of the show, though, because this is not a production that hangs on one person and crumbles on the edges. I loved loved loved, all of the scenes set in Brooklyn with Fanny’s mom (Marilyn Cutts) and her group of gal pals: I went with a Jewish American friend and those scenes honestly made us homesick. And the dance scenes were BANG POW PIZAZZ! I was never expecting there to be so much tap dancing in this show! It all seemed a wee bit crowded on the Menier stage, but hey, give me dancing that’s so big it spills over, now THAT’S what I want in a musical!

Oh, wait, didn’t I say I wanted something else in a musical? Well, in this case, really, the only thing I really wanted is for Nick Arnstein to be softer on the edges. Some of the problem is doubtlessly how he’s written – apparently he was actually far more of a scoundrel than they were allowed to show him when this show was created (due to possible lawsuits), but I think, well, if Alec Guiness can make me believe in the Force, Darius Campbell should have been able to make me believe in Nick Arnstein. He just didn’t seem to have any depth or reality to him, like someone had once seen Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind on a bad video tape and then tried to make that in to a three-dimensional being. I suspect he needs to be written a little meaner and more scheming, and, without those words, Cambpell needs to find a way to bring the character to life that’s outside of what’s on the page.

Overall, though, this was a great night out and I’d go back to see it again – and doubtlessly will once it hits the Savoy.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 19th, 2015. It continues at the Menier Chocolate Factory until March 5th 2016, then moves to the Savoy Theater in April. Buy your tickets either directly from the Menier or from the ATG website as there’s lots of scalping going on and no need to play that game.)

Review – Guys and Dolls – Savoy Theater

January 5, 2016

The Savoy Theater has been the place to be for me in 2015: I made five visits in total, the most I went to any mainstage London house (the Southwark Playhouse actually got the most attention thanks to my three trips to Xanadu). I was enthused about going back for a chance to see Guys and Dolls, especially after seeing what you could do with it in a small space some years ago (at the Gatehouse) – just imagine it all done on a big stage! Wow! The possibility!

The set, though, didn’t go for huge New York feel, but rather an evocative but not detailed look: most of what happened what done behind a background of curiously shaped period billboards with (occasional) neon outlines, easily enough redone to imply Cuba when required. Otherwise, the decor was mostly a few chairs, a podium, a desk and a news stand. It wasn’t exactly cheap, but it looked like it wouldn’t have even taken up one moving truck.

But hey! The music! The story! So much to love! And somehow neither the Adele/Nathan Detroit nor the Sky Masterson/Sarah Brown relationships were really clicking. Now that’s not to say Siobhan Harrison wasn’t really enjoyable as Sarah (especially in the Cuban scenes) – but you want to feel energy crackling between then – Sky’s power as a skilled seducer and her curiosity to take a trip on the wild side sending big crackling bolts between them. And Adele and Nathan just seemed too damned old for there to ever be a chance of them having all of the kids Adele’s been making up for those letters back home to mom. I could mostly buy them as long suffering partners but on the lines of two decades and not just one. T

This left me with the dancing to catch my attention, and boy did it. The catfight scene in the Cuban bar was all sorts of fun, and both “Rocking the Boat” and “Luck Be a Lady” were genuine showstoppers. Is this what Carlos Acosta can do when his dancers take off their toe shoes? Wow. I’m sensing another Jerome Robbins here because these numbers alone pumped Guys and Dolls up so much they were worth a second trip.

Well … actually that’s not true, even if the dancing was a standout. Tickets to the Savoy are too damned expensive and I won’t stand for less than 4 or 5 stars, and dance alone can’t give that much of a lift. It was a serviceable but forgettable show, I’m sorry to say, and was already slipping from my memory as I was walking to the tube. Not what you want when the bill is yet to be paid and already know luck weren’t your lady that night.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on December 17th 2015. It continues through March 12th and apparently Grand Circle seats are available for 25 for all shows – no surprise given how flat it was.)