Archive for July, 2017

Review – The Mentor – Vaudeville Theater

July 26, 2017

Walking down The Strand on my way to a show, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of new plays on that I’d overlooked. Look, right next door to Kinky Boots, a show called The Mentor, about which, seriously, not a peep. Now I know I’ve been keeping a low profile due to “cheap” meaning “no seats at all,” but it seemed odd that there was a show on the West End that had managed to completely fly beneath my radar. Half of what’s on right now is just last spring’s leftovers, and there’s a huge changeover happening as shows like The Girls and Beautiful end their runs. I did a bit of research – it was an 85 minute comedy about two playwrights having a clash of egos. Well, hell, I’m writing plays, why not come? If it had been in real life I would have paid solid money for it – much like I would have to have seen Stoppard and Pinter playing cricket.

The idea behind this play is that two men, an established playwright, Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) – who has done little of note since his first, tremendous play – and a up-and-coming playwright, Martin Wegner (Daniel Weyman), are being brought together courtesy of an arts organization that wants to raise its profile by getting a “mentorship” program established. Neither men seems to relish the actual “mentoring;” the older one is only there for the money and the younger one is just hoping to get a boost to his reputation. Meanwhile, apparently because there wasn’t enough dialogue to flesh the play out otherwise, we have two additional characters, the foundation’s representative (Jonathan Cullen) and the playwright’s wife, Gina (Naomi Frederick), who are given very little to say. Gina bigs up the elder playwright and gives her husband a foil, although she does manage to come into her own; poor Cullen has nearly nothing to do besides look hopeful and make beverages. Still, the addition of Gina to the plot makes the struggle between Rubin and Wegner far more visceral that it would have been if they were just discussing realism versus, er, non-linearism; Rubin wants to win this game on a more than literary platform.

While Rubin as a character is so well written and well played that the entire exercise seems to swirl around him – he is, after all, “the mentor” – the egotism, fragility, and, well, whiny man-baby aspects of his mentee are also a delight to see spattered on the stage. There’s little discussion of what actually makes a good play (I would have enjoy this) but much about how one survives in the creative world – whether by living off of one’s wife, using one’s artistic nature as a club to control others, finding the best way to make people laugh at parties, or by constant self-pimping – that provide unflattering insights into the actual life of artists as well as giving the audience plenty of comedy fodder. In the end, The Mentor seemed a slight play, but well done in its smallish form – a sort of perfect after work snack. Not every night is meant for Virginia Woolf or Hamlet; The Mentor is short and sweet and suited me nicely.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 21, 2017.)

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Klanghaus – 800 Breaths – Royal Festival Hall

July 14, 2017

At about 7:30 Wednesday evening, I was standing on the rooftop of the Royal Festival Hall, noticing how I could see Saint Paul’s, Big Ben, and the Shard (as well as the front view of Waterloo Station!) when a gray haired woman turned to me and said, “Can you explain to me what that was about?” And “that” was Klanghaus 2017, a promenade gig/visuals/let’s explore the non-public spaces of the Royal Festival Hall event we had both just done. (Technically it’s “800 Breaths” but since there was one last year and one this year I think 2017 is the name that will stick.)

Only now it’s you asking, so imagine I’m facing you, in the sunshine and holding a limed glass of fizzy water, and saying,

“Well, it’s kind of like a chance to explore these unseen parts of this really great building, right? I mean, if you’re into brutalist architecture, which I am, or industrial spaces, which I also am. And by putting music into them, and having us walk from place to place, we’re getting to see places nobody ever goes to and experience them, right? And by putting music and visuals into these forgotten places they are ‘activating’ them, bringing them to life, so we got to see them in a way we never really could have even if you ignore the fact that we would never get to come to these places in the first place.

“But it was also kind of a gig, right? A chance to hear the music that this band plays. And I don’t think they wrote a whole bunch of new songs or music to go with what we were doing, so really in was form adapting to content and not the other way around. “Skywriting” for sure, only “Breathe in/breathe out,” just before we got out of the hot stuffy bit to the outside, that was a really nice one. So it was a bit about experiencing the space, a bit about enjoying the music. If you don’t like the architecture or the music then maybe it wouldn’t be such a great thing for you. But I liked it.”

So if I were talking to you, an undecided potential audience member, I’d want you to know that if you’re a fan of The Neutrinos (who perform music while we watch) or funky industrial architecture, you’re going to want to hustle to get tickets. And since you’ll be going up stairs, down a ladder, and just plain old standing; seriously, wear comfy shoes, no dresses, and refuse the offer of earplugs at your peril (the first room was so loud you could feel the air moving against your face).

But there’s more; the visuals provided by Sal Pittman. I sat entranced by a whirling propeller … or was it a drumstick? And later surrounded by a cocoon of music I stared down a hallway watching a flower open and close … open and close …. its organic perfection in complete contrast to the green, aging machinery framing it … like sailing in The Phantom of the Opera’s boat, but through the byways of Metropolis instead of the catacombs of Paris. 

And there was one tiny moment of ecstasy, when we fellow travelers all huddled under a low ceiling, and our musicians sang unamplified and in harmony, with a bass plucked along nearly sub-audibly, like a lonely elephant calling to its herd, and over my head a diver swam up, up, up to the air, in search of … the cool fresh air we were all about to walk into. It was so intimate and so lovely and so untethered from time and any reality. It was wholly now and us together and so … effervescent. And I didn’t really know how to pop out of the reality of explaining “what it all meant” and find words to convey that moment, but it was there and I was there and it was just perfect. 

( This review is for the 6:30 performance that took place on Wednesday, July 12, 2017. Last year’s performance sold out so buy now.)

Review – Queen Anne – Royal Shakespeare Company at Theater Royal Haymarket

July 12, 2017

As a blogger, I don’t usually get invitations to West End shows, so it was hard to not say yes to an opportunity to see the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Queen Anne here in Londoninium. I was also intrigued by the subject matter, a modern treatment of a lesser monarch (by Helen Edmundson), and given that I’ve recently been to Blenheim Palace (for the Max Richter concert of music from Woolf Works) there was some additional interest for me. And the RSC is a rare treat for me, as I don’t usually travel to see shows and their tickets when they’re in London are not inexpensive. I expected high quality acting, costuming, and sets … the question would be how is the play?

The set for this show was gorgeously simple, an arched double level wall that from the top occasionally served as windows or balconies and from the bottom, the doors to various rooms. But most of the action took place in bedrooms – usually that of the princess and later queen, Anne (Emma Cunniffe), although also that of her closest friend and confidante, the Duchess of Marlborough (Romola Garai). It is in the interaction of these two women that most of the play’s plot is twined, although there is also some forward motion brought to play by the distant cousin (Abigail – Beth Park) that the Duchess (Sarah) has placed in the queen’s household. It’s interesting to see how close both women are to the queen – while the Duchess advises (and cajoles) on politics in contrast to Abigail’s job of changing the bandages on Anne’s suppurating legs, they both sleep in her bed regularly and provide as much emotional support as they do practical. There’s also a hint of a more sexual tone to Sarah’s relationship with the Queen, although it seems to be of far less import than the fact that the poor monarch endured 17 pregnancies with no surviving children to show for her efforts.

Anne’s personal tragedies – the loss of so many children, her own bad health, and the death of her husband midway through her reign – are certainly remarkable, but the historic times in which she lived, with ongoing Catholic versus Protestant conflict, substantial wars abroad, and the battle for Scotland via “The Great Pretender” are of such import that the story of her impact as a monarch is just as weighty a story and one well worth being told on stage. We get a fair amount of detail about the War of Spanish Succession (including financing thereof) and the maneuvering to get peace with Scotland; all of which are most welcome to see covered on stage. Even better is the Whig versus Tory split which makes itself known in attempts to influence Anne to pick one versus another to advice her cabinet. And yet, for some reason, the author of this play chose to focus on … Sarah’s temper tantrums when she thinks Abigail is now more popular with the queen than she is?

Really?

All of this history and suddenly we’re watching Mean Girls?

What makes it even worse is that neither the political wisdom Sarah Churchill must have had through close contact with her husband (or which she shared with him!) nor the relationship that Anne would have had with her own husband (who must have taken some interest in the country he lived in!) receive much attention at all. The broadsheets that mocked the queen get some attention, but a play just about how they worked behind the scenes to rake mud seems like a more intriguing yarn. Instead, we watch these two women play out one-note lives – Anne as Eeyore and Sarah as Regina George – while Abigail is entirely ignored as a plot opportunity. Cunniffe probably could have eked a bit more out of Anne but ultimately this is a case where the blame falls firmly at the writer’s feet. People interested in filling an evening with a learning a bit of history may find this show passable; but it is far from a classic. Let us hope the misadventures of the pamphleteers get their chance at some point in the future.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Tuesday, July 11,  2017.)