Archive for July, 2018

Review – Jew You Love Me – Jewish Cabaret Theatre at the Lion and Unicorn

July 29, 2018

The Jewish Cabaret Theater is a somewhat newish group, founded only 2016 (I unfortunately missed their last show, “Purim – Uncut!”). I had in fact misunderstood the topic of this show, Jew You Love Me, as I’d read a sentence in the press release wrong. “Gabi – a seemingly straight Jewish girl who ends up finding love in an unexpected partner, Ethan and Alon …” I honestly turned this around so that I thought this was about a straight girl who find love with two gay men, which is exactly the plot of A Home at the End of the World (but not Jewish). “Wow!” I thought. “A straight girl who decides to be with two gay guys and … all raise a kid together!” Since, again per the press release, the two guys were “a gay couple struggling with the concept of monogamy and hetero-normative love,” I thought it was great that they were reaching beyond the boundaries of same sex relationships, especially insofar as they do often censor bisexuality in partners (see Mike Bartlett’s Cock) and, as I know very well from the struggle of MY gay Jewish male friend, those waters can be especially difficult to navigate when you want to have children. So bingo, Ethan and Alon and Gabi as a trio … I thought this was SUCH an interesting plot for a musical I invited said gay Jewish male friend along with me to the show.

I can only imagine the writers of this show having a really good laugh at me. Let me tell you how the show ACTUALLY went. So, we’ve got a cafe in Golder’s Green, run by an adorable lesbian (Sam – Martha Pothen) who just happens to sing like Amy Winehouse, and we get to meet the other denizens of the cafe – Sam’s best friend Gabi (Ashley Racov), the adorable gay singer-songwriter Will (Jack Reitman), poet Ethan (Alex Ayliffe) and his wants-to-wander partner Alon (Ido Gonen), and finally the rather adorable aged couple Rachel (Batel Israel, not entirely convincing even with a silver wig) and Yakov (Josh Becker, rather jolly throughout). The show starts with many balls in the air – Sam has a crush on Gabi, Alon is pushing Ethan to open their relationship, and Rachel’s granddaughter Bracha (Tanya Trueman) has shown up from Israel with a chip on her shoulder and nothing nice to say about either the shiksa running the cafe or the gay men she sees being affectionate in it.

So … in the first act we get Gabi’s great comic song, “Swipe to the Right,” about the perils of Tinder, which winds up applying rather directly to Ethan and Alon … and Will!

But it’s when we finally get a moment alone with Bracha that the show, for me, moved to a higher plane. She came off as very uptight and unpleasant, choosing to not eat any food from Sam’s cafe and telling off the other people there for being ungodly. She’s newly arrived from Israel, and is very religiously conservative … not the kind of person we see represented much on the London stage. But as she sits outside, after being rejected by the other customers of the cafe, we get to hear her talk about how she sees the world, in the song, “Blessing,” which is mostly about her love for God and attempts to live a life that holds up to what he wants. Initially I was quite resistant to and uncomfortable with this song … I’m an atheist, and I don’t really enjoy listening to people sing about religion … but suddenly Bracha revealed something about herself that just flipped things right around.

I was reminded of a play I’d seen in New York, Indecent, about the controversy surrounding the 1923 Broadway debut of a play by Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch called God of Vengeance. Asch’s play was disturbing to the Jewish community in New York, because it portrayed Jewish people in a non-hagiographic way, as people with shortcomings and desires and conflicts; a reality much easier to hide from the goyim before the play was translated in English. The play toured in Europe AND in American without problem until it was shown in a language non-Yiddish Americans could understand; and when this happened, Jewish community leaders did not want it performed, and shut it down.

But the play showed to ME something I’d not known at all; that the Jewish community, the Yiddish speaking community of Europe, was rich enough to support its own theater, with touring groups and playwrights who wrote especially for it; this being just one elements that were lost to us when that great swathe of our friends and neighbors were systematically executed during World War II. And LOOK, here I was in London in 2018, and the community that I am not a part of but which lives side by side with me is doing their own theater, theater that represents THEM, and I am having this opportunity to get to learn about another culture (which exists in many different forms!) and other values and, look at Bracha, the same conflicts and heartaches that have been going on for centuries when you want to fit in, you want to do right, but you just can’t seem to live up to what is expected of you. And for Bracha, it was making her heart break. And in her, I could see the reincarnation of the female protagonists of God of Vengeance, and I wanted to hear her story and hear her speak for herself. I wanted to know what made her mom leave London behind; I wanted to know more. BANG it all came together for me and suddenly I was invested in what was going on.

Back in the rather more fluffy world of the cafe, Sam was struggling with Gabi (I’m unclear why they were not getting along), and Alon was wondering if he’d made a huge mistake in trying to change the terms of his relationship (in the great song “Falling Behind”). But zip and zest were coming from the Yakov and Rachel corner, which has to mark one of the few times I’ve ever seen an elderly couple with a healthy sexual relationship on stage. It was funny and it was a good time, and the idea that they were teaching the gay male trio a thing or two gave me a giggle.

In the end – and with no spoilers – I found myself somewhat overwhelmed by the many, many story lines, and wondering if perhaps some shortcuts had been taken to get us to the end in a reasonable amount of time when perhaps few stories more richly developed might have been a better choice. Still, I loved having the company turn its back on divisive hatred and face forward to the audience for a song that essentially said, we are you we are, and God accepts us, as if to say to all of London and the world, there really is no place for hatred of others … a message I feel we need to hear in times like these. It was a fun musical and a good (if sweaty) night out.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 27, 2018.)

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Preview (for Edinburgh) – Sod’s Law – Lord Hicks at the Old Red Lion

July 19, 2018

I’m a woman of very catholic tastes, and I enjoy a night of dirty ukelele songs just as much as a countertenor singing Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. But it seems that the 50th anniversary of the repeal of sexual offences act has led to a real flourishing in the arts, from the spectacular queer cabaret that was The Caravan Society to the publication of Peter Ackroyd’s Queer City, a history of London. This book and Lascivious Bodies seemed to tie right in to the evening’s entertainment … which promised “a historical romp through queer history.” Lured in by his exquisite legs …. I mean, voice … I showed up in the steamy attic of the Old Red Lion ready for him to “bring it on!”

The show is a pure one-man (plus projectionist) effort, with Hicks in his normal dapper black and white stripes and tail coat, but in addition to the ukelele I’ve seen him with for most outings, Hicks added a piano to the ensemble. We started our tour in the reign of Henry VIII, when sodomy was made a hanging offense, then travelled through the centuries, hitting highlights such as the molly houses (illustrated with a very funny song listing the many insulting names for queer people, “turd burglar” being a particular favorite), Oscar Wilde, and the Wildeblood scandal of the 1950s. Again and again Hicks showed us how the authorities pursued their own agendas in attempting to entrap queers, aided throughout the centuries by blackmailers and others just eager for a good hanging.

Hicks didn’t end at 1967, though, because afterwards the police were still after us (“Pretty Policeman Blues”), not to mention hateful people in the UK government. His two most touching moments were post-Stonewall and pre-AIDS – where he sang a medley including “I Feel Love,” “YMCA,” and “Rasputin” – and then another in the Thatcher era, with Bronski Beat and (I think?) Pet Shop Boys, exploring the self-hatred many gay people have had to struggle with. One moment was ethereal and joyous, the other was distillate of loneliness – I can’t say which I preferred because they were both beautiful.

Historically speaking, I was surprised to find Sod’s Law actually hit a lot of the major events, and went beyond the “and then it was all fine after 1967” narrative I’ve been hearing a lot in the last year. It was more than just novelty songs, as well, which I was fearing, but in fact the songs that were novel, such as his infamous Grindr song, were nicely placed, and there was more than enough meat to make for a very solid sandwich in this show. And Hicks himself is a charismatic performer – he has no challenge holding the stage on his own for the hour running time.

Of course being a preview there were some glitches – a microphone cord with a mind of its own, the projection screen that decided it was past its bedtime – but the content is solid. If you’re off to Edinburgh, or even have a chance to see him doing warmups in London – I’d highly recommend this lively, funny, and occasionally heartbreaking show.

(This review is for a performance that took place July 18th at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington. It continues there and in Greenwich before formally opening at the Greenside in Edinburgh.)

Review (Edinburgh Preview) – Fallout – Lotta Quizeen at Bread and Roses Theatre

July 18, 2018

Oh what a long journey we have taken with Lotta Quizeen since that first show at the Battersea Arts Center to last night’s show at the Bread and Roses. I’ve gone from immigrant to citizen in the intervening years, and I’ve had helpful indoctrination in British customs and culture, including being exposed to the phenomenon of Fanny Cradock (as well as being taught why one does not wear a “fanny pack” but rather a “bum bag”).

I still don’t understand a lot about how people operate here, but I understand apocalpyse preparation AND domestic violence, so I was ready for the full experience of Lotta Quizeen’s guided trip through a proper lady’s nuclear bunker. We were introduced to a variety of different long-lived food stuffs, given our rota, and warned about the dogs. Alongside this, our extremely charming hostess (so fetching with her camouflage hair wrap!) gave us some insight into her domestic situation, which led (somehow inevitably) to a live action dating for the post-nuclear bomb world. Those grandbabies had to come from somewhere, and apparently my girlfriend was up for being a potential breeder (to her surprise).

As the lights flickered and dimmed, and the barking of the dogs outside became more ominous, we found ourselves peering into a world of fear and doubt. It seemed it was about our future; but it was really about the inside of Ms Quizeen’s head. Her world had been turned upside down. It was the end of everything. She still wanted order and manners, but somewhere, behind the scenes, it had fallen apart. And we were there while it (rather explosively in the case of some of the props) blew up in our faces. This world, this world of hiding and lying and pretending, is just as real in America as it is for people here, and I completely understood where Lotta was coming from. She had unwillingly been pulled into the heart of darkness, and it was then end of everything. A wild journey and one I was glad to be able to take with her.

This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends/ This is the way the world ends – not with a bang but a whimper.

(“Fallout” is currently previewing around London and is next at The Bunker. It will be formally opening at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as a part of the Free Festival.)

Review – The Play About My Dad – Jermyn Street Theater

July 10, 2018

With daily headlines about the youth sports team trapped in a cave in Thailand, Monday night seemed perfect timing to be watching a play about the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on the lives of residents of Missippi. Spun out amongst three groups of people as the moment of crisis approached and the tension ratcheted, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Floyd Collins, the musical about the man trapped in a cave in 1930s Kentucky. Would htey live? Would they die? The four families Boo Killebrew chose to show us were unknowns, all potential members of the class of 1836 people killed in this murderous storm. It made for riveting viewing. Who would make it out alive?

Killebrew chose an intriguing framing device, of putting herself and her father Larry (David Shaal) as characters in the play, so that she could write about the process of writing and creating in a meta-theatrical way, as well as exploring their relationship. Larry the character is thus able to speak about what Larry Killebrew saw, as a doctor at a hospital, and about his relationship with Boo (Hannah Britland) and about the writing process in general. Killebrew then adds some people she knew less well as characters (specifically Kenny Tyson – Ammar Duffus – an ambulance driver, and Essie Watson – Miquel Brown – Dad Killebrew’s babysitter from way back when), and then four other people, a family and another EMT, to round out the stories. But Killebrew herself was not there, which is a bit of a shame. That said, I was torn between finding the use of her insertion of herself as playwright into the narrative irritating, as it introduced a lot of superfluous dialogue, and finding it fascinating, because, well, I too write plays, and I found the discussions of her technique very, very interesting – so interesting it distracted me from the actual narratives she had created.

Still, it was the topic of Hurricane Katrina that drew me to this show. I don’t often get to see plays about recent American history – that is, anything less than a hundred years old – so this attempt to wade into the muck of this shameful catastrophe was square center in my mind’s eye. How would a play about Katrina spin out? How much focus would we get on the woeful response of people on the ground? How much on the disproportionate effect of the hurricane on the black and elderly? Would we look at the policemen that refused to let black citizens drive out of New Orleans? Would we look at the causes of the disaster?

In short, no, we did not. We heard three tales of people who mostly fatally affected by the storm. We struggled with them as they attempted to deal with the fact the waters were rising so high that they were likely to wind up drowned; we wondered why they did not leave when the danger of staying was clear. And side by side with their stories we hear the story of Boo Killebrew struggling with her father leaving his family (Boo and her mom), and the fear she felt when their car ran out of gas during a storm, and a little bit about what was happening and Larry Killebrew’s hospital during and after the storm.

But some very big questions aren’t answered. And, for me very oddly in a play set in the South, we have no discussion or examination of racial interactions, and, rather worse I think, no examination of the impact of poverty on people’s outcomes. So many people who couldn’t swim; so many people who couldn’t drive away; so many people that weren’t able to keep up their houses; so many people afraid of what missing three days of work would do to them. And alongside it we have two well to do white people whose concerns during the storm were buying a dress and getting phone service again. In the end, it felt like there were two entirely different stories being told – one about Hurricane Katrina, and one about a father/daughter relationship – but by blending them together, Killebrew makes it look like she is exploiting other people’s suffering without really understanding it, and trying to equate her emotional experience with people actually dying. The net effect is to pollute both stories. The people who die are just backdrop to a family drama, but in fact theirs is the real drama. There are some good threads going here and some good roles for non-white actors – a pleasure to see in London to be sure – but it would be better to see this done as “The Play About Katrina” and “The Play About My Dad,” so the issues in each play could be focused on appropriately without one trivializing the other. The story of Kenny Tyson dealing with his mother’s loss and being able to see the past and the future is interesting enough to carry its own play; I’d love to see him, and the other working class and poor people of The Play About My Dad, brought front and center with their own play. Still, it was nice to see recent, and important, US history put on stage, and brilliant to get to see the people from the South shown as just typical folks holding down jobs and looking after their families. I look forward to seeing how Killebrew’s work develops as she matures.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 9, 2018. It continues through July 21st.)