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Review – HMS Pinafore – Charles Court Opera at King’s Head Theater

April 18, 2019

Although I am generally prone to follow the work of particular playwrights or choreographers, I have made it a habit over the years to see everything Charles Court Opera puts on. In addition to their consistently hilarious pantos, their updated take on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan has done much, in my eyes, to show the solid gold that too frequently has been left hiding under the dust. Artistic Director John Savournin really has an eye to keeping things fresh, as well as an ability to recruit strong talent – so I came to their H.M.S. Pinafore with much enthusiasm.

This Pinafore is, rather than a sailing boat, a submarine, done in a cheerful mostly yellow color scheme that suited the 1960s setting – if making it a bit hard to figure out how a “bum boat woman” (Jennie Jacobs as Buttercup) could actually make it to the ship. That said, the Jackie Kennedy hairdo and styling of Josephine (Alys Roberts) was perfect – she looked just like the sort of charming ingenue capable both of being chased by an admiral (Joseph Shovelton) and loved madly by a lowly seaman (Phillip Lee). The man playing her father, Captain Corcoran (Matthew Palmer) was so fresh faced and pink cheeked that it seemed hard to imagine him as her father – he looked all of thirty! – but given how the play ends it was probably for the best that he looked so young. Meanwhile, the Admiral – who shows up in a diving suit – was a huge ham and big scene stealer, although his aunt – of “his sisters, and his cousins and his aunts” – managed to upstage him consistently, and without uttering a word. Trust me on this.

Staging and costumes is all fine, but what about the singing? While Ralph had a lovely voice and the Admiral a suitably booming one, I found myself entirely won over by Roberts’ turn as the captain’s daughter. “Sorry her lot” is a sappy piece of work, but I could hear convincing young love within her voice. And her scene telling off Ralph – with many asides – nicely switched from aggravation to desperation without either seeming forced! I kept wanting to push back at the sugariness of the original, but instead I found myself cheering on the two of them … wholly succumbing to the charm of the work. And my, didn’t the jokes about the British class system still hold up in their entirety.

While this production didn’t “push the boat out” much, so to speak, the delight of hearing this cream of the crop show in such an intimate environment is not to be underestimated. Charles Court have done well and I am sure they will have full houses eager to spend their evenings laughing at a well executed romp.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. It continues through May 11th.)

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Review – Original Death Rabbit – Jermyn Street Theatre

January 16, 2019

Technology, and how we deal with it, is one of my favorite topics for plays and for new writing. As human beings, we’ve gone well beyond letters and even phone calls; theater has struggled to keep up with the rapid changes in how we communicate with each other. Plays are, at their core, about dialogue; but these days, we talk to each other with text messages, with instant messages, with comments on posts, and with emojis, memes, and captioned photos. None of these translate well to the stage. But what does, and should, is how these changes are affecting us as people and as a society – what does having a thousand different ways to communicate with each other (and often with strangers) do to individuals. And this is what Rose Heiney’s play Original Death Rabbit is about – how life as lived partially on the internet is changing us.

Kimberley Nixon in the Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre - photo by Robert Workman

Kimberley Nixon in the Original Death Rabbit at Jermyn Street Theatre – photo by Robert Workman


Original Death Rabbit is the online handle of a young woman who briefly shot to fame as the originator of an online meme, a la the “icebucket challenge” or “planking.” A photo was taken of her wearing a pink bunny onesie at a funeral and it became an internet craze – taking pictures of yourself (or others) at inappropriate places wearing the same thing. But like any person who gets five minutes of fame, there’s a lot more to ODR than the moment she was caught hiding in a cemetery or when the paps finally found her on the doorstep of her apartment. ODR is a young woman with mental health issues, who comes from a family with mental health issues, who finds that with an unrelenting spotlight on her she is more inclined than ever to not leave the house and to spend her time on online forums and trolling her top enemy on Twitter. Her depiction of a life lived in a tiny flat, only communicating via text, seems remarkably acccurate and depressing – a good reason to unplug forever and force yourself to get back to face to face communication.

The whole thing is done as a monologue by Kimberley Nixon – an impressive feat, and one she carries off with complete self assurance. It’s easy to imagine ODR and Nixon herself as being spoiled, self-obsessed, insecure, raging, and able to completely lose herself in poetry – Nixon wraps the character around herself so much that she disappears, and I found myself lost in the “maze of twisted passages all alike” that is ODR’s brain. How had she become so broken? Why wasn’t she trying to save herself?

Original Death Rabbit is a tightly woven portrait of a person who is allowed to further withdraw into mental illness in a world where it can be hard to tell when people are hiding and when, in fact, they are in danger. That said, I found myself torn between wanting to shout, “Get over yourself!” to the character, to wanting to call the author and ask her to give ODR a little something to make her a bit more well-rounded. Dealing with your own and a family’s mental illness gives an author (and an audience) a lot of material to work with, but having all of a story be told as a video being made for YouTube – or perhaps an extended blog post – is just not quite enough to make me care about the person on stage, or her family. I wanted to see more, to go deeper, to know that the bullshit happy happy faces people put up on social media are very much not representative of the struggles that are happening below – because ODR’s struggles never seemed to get to that key nerve I wanted to get. Still, it’s worth seeing if you want to see theater that’s engaging with the effect of technology on our lives – the topic has much to offer.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 15, 2019. It continues through February 9th.)

Review – Burke and Hare – Jermyn Street Theatre

December 3, 2018

In a completely genius move of counter-programming, Jermyn Street have chosen to stage a most unusual Christmas show: a celebration of two 19th century Scottish grave robbers, completely with jolly songs, bad jokes, and on stage corpsing of the most literal sort. With three actors playing more roles than I could count (yet all nicely delineated by clothing and accent), the night moved at a whirlwind pace, barely seeming to leave the central room at the lodging house where Mr Hare (Alex Parry) lives along with his wife, the proprietor (Katy Daghorn). Burke (Hayden Wood) shows up, short of cash, but willing to work; and when a chance comes to sort a dead lodger’s debt by selling off his corpse, Burke shows little shyness in joining in the Hares’ plans.

The particular genius of this show is how so few actors in such a tiny space manage to do so much, conveying the back alleys of Edinburgh, the blood-splashed lecture halls of the cadaver-hungry doctors, and the heave and squalor of a rooming house not of the highest class. Much credit for this no doubt must go to director Abigail Pickard Price and designer Toots Butcher; Jermyn Street is very much an intimate theater but they created a space that felt far larger. And the comedy was right on target – black at times but full of silliness especially as the various actors attempted to compensate for the shortage of bodies to fill the roles (see what I did there?).

Burke and Hare, full cast – Hayden Wood, Alex Parry, and Katy Daghorn. Photo by Philip Tull.


My worry was that this story would completely descent to goriness, given that I’m fairly phobic about blood, but most of the spare body parts were so silly that I couldn’t have been the least bit frightened; and there was, in the end, only one murder scene, played toward then end and actually quite moving. If you add in the fact that the corpse on stage the longest appeared to be giggling under her sheet, the overall effect was leavened with enough humor – gallows humor, shall we say – that I was able to make it through the entire play without getting creeped out.

While Burke and Hare is not going to be stealing punters away from the Palladium panto, pretty much every theater goer in town is going to want a break from endless helpings of treacle and mince pies, and this show is just right for us – zippy, fun, tightly performed, and with enough of a feeling of improv that every night should feel fresh – just like the corpses.

(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place Friday, November 30, 2018. It continues through December 21st.)

Tulip Hunting in Uzbekistan and beyond

November 29, 2018

After listening to Frazer Henderson’s wonderful talk on Kyrgyzstan at the Wakefield and North of England Tulip Society AGM in 2015, I was all fired up to look for tulips in exotic places. Soaring mountains, alpine lakes, and beautiful, beautiful flowers growing wild in the rocks – I wanted to see them myself. Sure, there were a few challenges – transport, housing, and blood sucking fauna – but it all seemed to fade in the background when I remembered his photos of cobalt blue lakes beneath snow capped peaks. It also seemed very affordable, provided you didn’t mind the occasional meal of horse meat. When I received an email asking if I were interested in joining a small group of enthusiasts on a trek to Uzbeki-stan, I leaped at the opportunity. I, too, would become a species spotter – a true tulipomane!

A Tulipa Korolkovii forces its way out from the rocks in the foothills of the mountains near Nurata

A Tulipa Korolkovii forces its way out from the rocks in the foothills of the mountains near Nurata

We started our trip in Istanbul, which was off the official itinerary but a wonderful place to begin, as the annual tulip festival was in full swing, with the Emirgan Korusu park covered with acres and acres of late Dutch tulips in gorgeous displays. Our group of five – Frazer, myself, my husband, and WNETS committee members Teresa and Jason Clements – took some time to visit the tulip museum in the park and then to stroll around admiring the densely planted gardens. Entry was free (although distant from public transport – a taxi would be helpful), and families were everywhere: picnicking, taking photos, and enjoying the perfect weather. From this hilltop perch, we dashed to a field between the Hagia Sophia museum and the Sultan Ahmet mosque, where a giant carpet of tulip blossoms had been made as a part of the festival. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard more about this festival in the UK – in richness of displays, it seemed more than equal to Keukenhof, but with the added fun of Istanbul and its treasures surrounding it (and no entry fee).

Naturalized Tulipa Greigii

Exploring a pasture of tulips beside a mountain lake. Among the crags and ravines beyond many rare tulip varieties lurk. Would we get to them before the local goats (who consider tulips a delicacy)?

After our busy day, we had several hours of free time to dine and repack, for all of us were on the same flight to Tashkent – at midnight. Uff! Our Uzbekistan adventure began properly the morning of April 13th, where we were met at the tiny Tashkent airport by Yuri, our Uzbeki tour guide, and transferred to our hotel in a residential district of Tashkent.

Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum and pilgrimage site

The pilgrimage site of the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleum includes the resting place of Qusam, a cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as numerous members of Tamerlane’s family.

There we found Karsten, a German anesthesiologist, who would round out the tour group to six. As we headed into our vans the next morning, we met Ivan Maltseva, who would accompany us as our botanist. The next morning we undertook a lengthy drive to the farming villages of the Nurata mountains, where, on our very first hike, we found a few examples of Tulipa Korolkovii on the shale slopes. This stubby pinky white/red wonder (it had two forms) had the most gorgeous curlicue foliage. As a bonus, we saw a chamoix in the distance – all this just a half hour walk from our guesthouse. It was a promising start! From then, our days alternated with long drives between tulip biomes, sightseeing in ancient cities, and hikes in remote landscapes that varied between twinkling alpine meadows scrub desert, and the kind of sandstone canyons that made you think Indiana Jones was just around the corner.

Tulipa Ingens

A Tulipa ingens nestling in the snow at the Kitab State Geological Reserve.

It quickly became clear that while it might seem that our enemy was the weather – fog, freezing sleet and accompanying mud – the true villain of this trip was the goat, which time and again seemed to have beat us to the tulips, leaving behind close cropped stems and a few leaves. We had arrived in time for blooming season, but could not beat the hungry hordes!Our best days of tulip spotting were spent in mountain preserves too remote for grazing herbivores. In the foggy, freezing Takhtakaracha mountains near Samarkand, we saw Tulipa ingens and Tulipa Fosterianii amid the grass, moss, boulders, and clag; within the gorgeous Kitab State Geological Reserve (where we were as interesting to the park rangers as the tulips were to us) we found Tulipa ingens and Tulipa Fosteriana hiding between patches of snow; and in Boison we enjoyed central Asia curving away from us after we took our pictures of Tulipa Korolkovii and Tulipa lanata.

Uzbeki family picnic

An Uzbeki family near Nurata having a Sunday picnic of lamb stew, flatbread, and tea.

We also enjoyed some outstanding architecture and enjoyed the pleasures of a country where civilization has flourished since before the rise of Christianity. You can hardly escape learning about Emir Timur, called Tamerlane in the West, the national hero of Uzbekistan. His tomb, the madrasahs surrounding the imposing Registan square (the oldest built by his grandson in 1417), the turquoise Shah-i-Zinda necropolis (filled with Timur’s relatives), and the greatly restored Bibi-Khanym mosque (built for his wife) gave us a very rich time sight-seeing in our short time in Samarkand – with people from all over Asia queuing up beside us. While the tourism infra-structure is still a bit thin, the hospitality we were shown was genuine and joyful, including an exciting moment where we were invited to join an Uzbeki family for their Sunday picnic in the foothills near the city of Nurata (founded by Alexander the Great). Getting from place to place involved long hours in vans, but we took the opportunity to visit with each other, enjoy the scenery, and nap.

The highlight of the tour, however, was the final Sunday, when we drove from Tashkent to the Beldersay mountains, a well developed tourist area on the border with Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. We had a gorgeous drive into the mountains where we went to the station for a ski lift which continues running after the end of the snow for the benefit of day trippers who want to enjoy the magnificent views at the top. Our gondolas floated us over fields of yellow tulips – a huge change from the single stems we’d struggled to find in the deserts below!

Tulipa biflorifomis produces tiny double blooms in cream and white.

At the top, below occasional spots of melting snow, were endless clusters of tiny flowers – the endemic Tulipa Tchimganica – yellow and red flowers with pointed petals – and knots of the cream and yellow Tulipa biflorifomis, with its baroque foliage and endearing multi-headed blooms. All of this and snow capped peaks as far as the eye could see and the most gorgeous sunny weather
51- it was almost enough to make you forget that a misstep in the mud could send you quite a way down in a bit of a hurry. Then, after lunch, we made it to our residence, an off season ski resort, where our naturalist took us on a walk down the hillside into a fenced off field – where, miracle of miracle, endless clusters of fat, red Tulipa greigii all but filled the horizon with their cheerful scarlet. We lost ourselves in an ecstasy of photography, nearly giddy after so many days struggling to see even one flower amid the destruction caused by the ungulate population. There was one day left to the trip but nothing could top this day of seeing some of the world’s rarest tulips in their native environment, with the sunshine beaming down on us; and the joy of a grassy meadow shouting, “Welcome Spring!”

Tulipa Tchimganica

Tulipa Tchimganica is found widely in the Beldersay mountains.

Preview – How I Became a Dominatrix Using Damned Lies and Statistics – Vulcanello Productions at the King’s Head Theatre

September 5, 2018

Smash hit and Evening Standard “Pick of the Camden Fringe” How I Became a Dominatrix Using Damned Lies and Statistics is returning to the London stage after a sold out run at the EtCetera Theatre. The original cast is back for a limited engagement – five nights only – at the King’s Head Theatre in mid-October, playing as a part of the late night programme after performances of La Traviata.

How I Became a Dominatrix Using Damned Lies and Statistics

Counter culture housewife Christy (Fleur de Wit) thinks she’s lost all interest in sex, until she discovers the internet. Suddenly she’s found the cure for sexual blahs: she is going to become a dominatrix!

From bondage workshops to sex clubs, Christy takes herself, her husband Scott (Anthony Rhodes) and the audience on a journey of discovery, with instruction (and ridiculous jokes) courtesy of Coral Tarran (Mistress Sunshine, Violet) and newcomer Kyran Peet (Russell, Eric). Don’t tie yourself in knots – get someone else to!

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT: HIBDUDLS is the sixth play by T. L. Wiswell, the author of gender switched London Lovecraft Festival sell-outs “Mountains of Madness” and “The Thing on the Doorstep.” With this show, she turns from camp horror to anti-romcom, “Noel Coward meets Fifty Shades of Grey.”

ABOUT THE DIRECTOR: Micha Mirto is a theatre director with a particular interest in new writing and projects championing diversity. Her debut piece ‘A Flat Full of Chandeliers’ enjoyed a three week residency at the Hen and Chickens theatre and she’s since directed three summer tours with DOT Productions; ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (2016) ‘Emma’ (2017) and ‘A Woman of No Importance’ (2018). Other projects include ‘I,Dido’ (April 2018, St George’s Bloomsbury) and site specific ‘Gruesome Tales of the dark dark Woods’ (2014, Epping Forest).

REVIEWS:

http://viewsfromthegods.co.uk/how-i-became-a-dominatrix.shtml
https://twolassesinlondoncom.wordpress.com/2018/07/31/how-i-became-a-dominatrix-using-damn-lies-and-statistics-vulcanello-productions-etctheatre/
https://vickylovestheatre.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/how-i-became-a-dominatrix-camden-fringe/

PREVIEWS:
https://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/camden-fringe-festival-2018-the-best-shows-to-see-a3895216.html
https://londonist.com/london/things-to-do/things-to-do-this-week-in-london-30-july-5-august-2018
http://www.londonpubtheatres.com/camden-fringe-etcetera/4594378338

HIBDUDLS runs October 15-October 20, 2018 at the King’s Head Theatre and runs at 9:30 nightly for five performances (excluding Thursday). Run time is slightly less than an hour. There are adult topics but no nudity. Not suitable for under 16s. Tickets available on the King’s Head website; updates available via Facebook and Twitter; contact information below.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/howIBecameADominatrix/
Twitter: @how2domme
Tickets: https://system.spektrix.com/kingsheadtheatre/website/eventdetails.aspx?WebEventId=dominatrix

INTERVIEW WITH THE PLAYWRIGHT
Do you worry that people will try to do this at home? “I sure hope so!” says author TL Wiswell. “This play is supposed to be fun and people should come out feeing cheerful and enthusiastic and empowered. Embrace the power of, ‘Yes please!’ I mean, we give out how-to pamphlets at the show, SOMEBODY should try it out and see if it works. ”
Isn’t it a little too sexy for the London stage? (The play includes a caning workshop and a stylized party set at a sex club.) “Too sexy for Facebook, yes. They’ve consistently banned our ads even when we use vanilla art. We are not providing an adult service! But a lot of people find this whole world very intimidating,” adds Wiswell. “This play provides a road map to navigating the lifestyle and making it approachable. Ultimately, you take home what you bring, and if that’s curiosity, you may discover you’re now willing to push yourself just that little bit more. Dominants and dominatrixes like making jokes and being silly just like everyone else does, it’s just that when they do DIY at home it may be for much more dodgy reasons than you’d expect.”

Why is the title of the play so long? “HIBDUDLS was originally written as a play exploring how long term couples struggle to be honest about their desires – thus the ‘Damned Lies and Statistics,’ because often in a relationship the endless lies you tell to smooth things over become so natural that you forget what it is you actually want. I mostly just call it Dominatrix these days unless I’m talking to my family about the play and then it’s ‘Damned Lies and Statistics,’ the original title – which comes from the old quote about how there are three kinds of lies.”

So how is this a comedy, then? “I wanted to discuss this serious problem in a way that was engaging and positive. That’s how I came up with the dominatrix angle,” she continues. “A lot of people try to pep up their sex lives with the old ‘silk scarves and fuzzy handcuffs’ SM after many years, or decide to ‘open up their relationship’ by going polyamorous. I decided to have the couple of my play go to BDSM workshops together, and then invite the audience to come along. That way they’re learning as the characters learn, but the audience will figure out much sooner that Scott and Christie are approaching this in very different ways. My hope is the audience will see the ‘lies that bind’ fairly quickly. I love unreliable narrators, and both Scott and Christie have no idea what they are getting into in terms of their relationship. They both need to learn how to be honest really quickly.”

What were your inspirations for this show? “Changing your life is really difficult, and many works of art see making a change as too, too hard – impossible, in fact. This inability drives a lot of very melancholy works – “Three Sisters,” “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock,” it’s a long list. I found these inspiring, but they inspired me to flip this narrative, to tell a story where a woman is determined to change and to explore some parts of herself she’s filed away in cold storage and not to just do what she’s ‘supposed’ to do. My closest inspiration otherwise was the book ‘Our Tragic Universe’ by Scarlett Thomas – about someone learning to make a life for themselves – and ‘The Prudes’ by Anthony Neilson, which didn’t inspire me so much as convince me I was on the right track with directly addressing the audience and talking frankly about sex.”

It seems like this play could go quite dark, but the audiences were really laughing at the Et Cetera. Why is that? “Well, I worked to make it positive and upbeat. Neither of the lead characters are perfect and the people they meet run the gamut from predato¬¬ry to genuinely kind and supportive. ‘Dominatrix’ was written with research in both the polyamorous and BDSM community and is fairly true to life – but funnier. There’s a million reasons to be depressed today. I want people to come see my play and walk out feeling sparkly and excited about the future. Hopefully I’ve hit the right balance – and hopefully this will be a good show for neophytes and people who’ve been ‘on the scene’ forever. That’s what I’m aiming for, anyway.”

For additional information on TL Wiswell, see: https://diaboliquemagazine.com/climbing-mountains-madness-bringing-lovecraft-london-stage/

Review – Black Cat Cabaret: Bohemia – Underbelly Festival

September 3, 2018

It’s rare that I get to review a show I was interested in see, but this was my great luck – to be invited to opening night of the Black Cat Cabaret’s new show, Bohemia. I’d been alerted to their upcoming run at the Underbelly Festival by a friend who pointed it out as the kind of louche night out I enjoy; and, boy, of the various circus cum cabaret evenings I’ve seen over the last several years at this venue, Bohemia absolutely takes the cake as the best combination of movement, music, and sheer pizazz since I saw the puppy play segment of Briefs back in 2014. Black Cat is running the tightest, freshest presentation of circus based performance right now, the ultimate flowering of the hot bed of burlesque/drag/queerness/physical performance that IS London right now, and only this particular sexually charged petri dish could have produced it. Let me describe for those who might be of a more suspicious nature.

The evening opened with our fabulous, sexalicious compere, Frisky giving us a narrated tour of the life of bohemians throughout the ages, hitting Montmartre, of course, but also the sixties and even Manchester of the eighties. This provided an excuse to sing “Don’t You Want Somebody to Love, ” and … well, do you remember hearing how Grace Slick’s voice was ruined early in her career and you never got those candy-sweet tones you heard on vinyl? WELL I HEARD THAT SONG SPUN LIKE SWEET FLUFFY FLOSS and it rocked out.

The performers were a mixed bag of artists – an easy to love hoop dancer, a muscular man who did aerial silks, a fire breather who looked like the daughter of Ming the Merciless (Hayley Harvey-Gomez), and an alcoholic (supposedly) trapeze-type artist (Katharine Arnold) whose antics overhead as Frisky ordered her (in song), “Entertain us! Here we are now, entertain us!” in gorgeously redux Nirvana style …

literally brought me to tears. Early in the evening, the gorgeous Leon Fagbemi, the second featured act, came on stage doing a flip in the air and, you see, missed his landing. His feet were underneath him but I could see he’d landed wrong, and apparently he really hurt himself, although he kept his face completely straight as he walked off into the darkness …

leaving the rest of the cast to figure out how do we get this back together. And they carried on, like the professionals we were, and we did that thing we do, like hungry audiences, not caring very much but wanting to be entertained. And they literally gave us everything, and watching “Danger K” spinning around in the air above me, I thought, they really are in a different world; they give us their bodies and we give them just a tiny big of money and then suddenly we decide we’re not there for them anymore. Our beautiful, talented, wonderful London artists’ community, we just really don’t love them like we ought to, and there I was, sitting in the audience after this had happened, and Frisky was telling all of us that every one of them knows we only love them for four minutes and then we move on. And it was unbearably beautiful and sad and I got teary.

But hey. I hadn’t had enough sleep. That was it.

The overall quality of the performances was technically very high, with inventive executions (and clever narration) that I felt moved the entire show a notch above the usual burlesque performance or even modern circus. But you know what clinched it? Frisky’s voice. My God. One whole star just for the pleasure of hearing her sing, and the incredibly appropriate and thoughtful music she chose. Which would mean I give this show five stars, if I gave stars, with I don’t. But you know what I did do? I went back and reserved a table for two weeks later, because YES I liked that much and YES Leon I want to see you perform (and be well!) and YES YES YES there is nothing sexier than a giant YES PLEASE for Black Cat: Bohemia. See you in two Fridays.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place Thursday, August 30th, 2018. It continues through September 30th.)

Review – The Aristocrats – Donmar Warehouse

August 8, 2018

It’s the mid-1970s. In a stately home in Ireland, the adult children of the home’s owner are gathered before the youngest’s wedding. One plays piano; one lies in her room recovering from a hangover; the single male member of the family makes food in the kitchen. One daughter deals with the apparently sickly father upstairs. This is The Aristocrats.

Over the course of the next two hours, bit by bit, the personalities of these people will be revealed. Two of them seem to be unhinged (the piano playing daughter – Aisling Loftus – and the solitary son – David Dawson); one of them (Elaine Cassidy) seems bent on self destruction (either by alcohol or abuse at the hands of her spouse); the last (Eileen Walsh) seems horribly practical but determined to ensure her life is a miserable despite her capabilities. The personalities are squeezed out mostly through their interactions with American researcher Tom Hoffnung (Paul Higgins), who is looking into how the Irish Catholic landed class has held up back in the home country.

While the various bits of tale telling and nonsense is going on, Uncle George (Ciaran McIntyre) is mostly sat at the back of the stage, peeling paint off of a wall. What an incredibly appropriate metaphor for my experience watching this play. While watching people lead crappy lives, lie to themselves and others, and basically flopping around failing to accomplish a damned thing might seem an appropriate topic for a painting, as a play it was just an unmitigated bore. The metaphor of rot in rich families was covered pretty definitively in Brideshead Revisited (complete with metaphor of rotting house for a rotten “house”); and while we did hit an Irish stereotypes bingo with the revelations of the final act, all and all I just felt: with The Ferryman showing us the richness of the Irish experience and the impact of the turmoil of the 70s on Irish people, just what in the world was this play adding to the mix? It was neither a new story, nor interesting. The characters were solid, but that’s just not enough to make an evening fly. At 1:15 before the interval I was shocked to discover I had not been there for the full two hours already.

Frequently the shame about Donmar shows is that they sell out so soon, and this is why I bought these tickets so far in advance. Fear not: word will get out and you, too, can go if you want, or perhaps you can join me at the back of the garden, peeling off some paint. It’ll save you the money and a precious two hours better spent doing nearly anything else.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on August 7, 2018. It continues for quite some time.)

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.)

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.)