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Review – “Thrill Me: The Leopold & Loeb Story” – Jermyn Street Theater

January 19, 2022

Coming out of Christmas time and before the schmaltz of Valentine’s day, it seems like there is a lull perfect for a bit of horror. And Jermyn Street is ready for that space with its production of Thrill Me, a 2005 off-Broadway musical based on the true story of 1920s “thrill killers” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb. While a movie or a novel might focus the horrifying death at the core of this tale, the musical is, instead, focused on the relationship between these two men, and how two mostly ordinary, priveleged young men decided that the thrill they needed in their lives was to kill an adolescent boy.

Jermyn Street Theatre

Is this a story best served by music? Well, yes, really, it is, because explaining how an emotional journey takes place is a perfect job for song. Leopold’s obsession (and devotion) to Loeb, the pressure for each to provide what the other one wants, even the bizarre attraction of arson … a movie could never take us to that place of jubilation, attraction, physical chemistry, and basically all the forces that combined to make these two men think that sex, property destruction, and cold blooded murder were what you needed to make life good. You’re unlikely to agree with them, but you can feel the pressure of these intense emotions combining to make them take the path they did – and see how a few other notable psychopaths might have felt that same tug.

The songs wouldn’t really make it fly, though, if it weren’t for the intense physicality brought to the roles by Bart Lambert (Leopold) and Jack Reitman (Loeb). Loeb’s obsession with Nietzche, his belief that he was a “superman” that could never be caught by the dull plebs that surrounded him, and the genuine fire and “push me/pull you” relationship with Leopold were believable and toxic. I couldn’t help but think of modern incel culture, in which deluded young men think the women who reject them are in fact the defective ones and deserving of death, rather than realizing that they are actively being avoided because of their toxicity.

However, after living in the emotional cooker of Covid for nearly two years, I found that Lambert actually seemed to be taking the twitchiness of his character a bit too far for such an intimate venue as the Jermyn. The 1920s scenes (contrasting to the ones he does in the 50s with the parole board, as a much older and more mature character) seeemed almost like a silent movie, with his hands held like claws and his face screwed up as if in agony. And, as an aside, this play should NOT be seen as a true crime show; while it might make sense to have one character be more sympathetic, reading through the various information I could find made me think author Stephen Dolginoff in fact chose the wrong man to be portrayed as a villain. That said, you have to make your source material work in the medium in which it is going to be presented, and the many details that were changed up between reality and the show certainly served to make it a tighter evening.

Thankfully, though, director Matthew Parker handled the actual murderin a way that a queasy nellie like myself was able to ride through without damage – there was no body, no blood, no actual violence, and no horrible recounting of every little detail of what happened. I know that’s how some people like their thrillers, but I frankly could not have coped. Still, if you want a bracing, adrenaline-raising night out, Thrill Me is a most unusual musical and decidedly a welcome note of counter-programming in a West End that seems afraid to offer anything that isn’t escapist or nauseatingly cute.

(This review is for press night, which took place on January 18th, 2022. It continues through February 5th.)

Post script: here is a picture of Bobby Franks, because I think it’s important to remember him.

Review – Pricked – Royal Vauxhall Tavern

December 12, 2021

Christmas comes but once a year, and with it panto season – a time of furious theater attendance for me as I am a die hard panto fan. Last year was not one of many pantos given the Christmas lockdown, but one of the few pantos I did see was “Pricked” at the RVT. With its pure cabaret talent, great send ups of pop songs, and snarky take on our political situation, I found it fantastic Covid counterprogramming, and one of the best Adult pantos I’d ever seen.

Grant Cartwright as the Fairest Of Them All. Sorry, wrong fairy tale!

Since half the run never happened, the creative team at the RVT wisely decided to just remount this underappreciated (well certainly underviewed) show rather than cooking up a whole new one, and I was was invited to review it (truth be told I’d bought tickets to a show later in the run, but hey this blog needs some fresh content so now is a good time). Off I went on a Wednesday night … only to found that Prince Charming herself (Chantelle St. Clair) had been struck by the deadly virus (or at least an isolation warning) and was to be replaced by the costume designer, Amy Rose! That’s the life in a cabaret, isn’t it, though. Even though Amy was on book during the show, it didn’t really affect the overall vibe too much, except for one tiny bit toward the end where all of the characters were looking around for a script while one of them was very noticeably holding one, which they all pretended not to see. Now that, I think, is the “magic of theater.”

“Pricked” is, as you might guess, a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story, only with “our heroine” a wannabe pop star (Grant Cartwright) who dreams of hitting the top of the charts with her vocal stylings. She’s shallow as can be, but since she’s cute and funny, who cares? Certainly not Fairy Merrywhether (Lucy Penrose, God that girl makes me laugh), who’s eager to see Beauty out of the cottage so Merryweather can get cottaging (yes, this is the level of humor for the show, get used to it). However, the spanner in the works is Our Villainess, Maleffluent (Joseph Pollard), still angry from not being invited to the christening party 18 years ago. Mal has sent her wicked raven (Charlie Wood, as heartbreakingly beautiful as I remembered from last year) to find the thorn in her side, and preferably before that irritating rich prat, Prince Charming, gets his …. well, I’m sure another pun involving the title of the show is called for her, but it is the prick that is supposed to break the spell, right, and none of us could find a spindle if our lives depended on it? Good enough ….

Now, the thing is, you know the panto formula, but what you may not know is what makes an adult panto so great. Yeah, sure, there are some very rude jokes and there may be a sex toy, but the thing I didn’t understand when I started going to these is not just how queer/gay they are, but how <I>nice</I> it is to see <I>my</I> culture represented on stage. I mean, gay is not just drag queens (whatever some people think) and bathhouses, it’s a family, a family that has safe spaces to exist and which values its hugely diverse members. Do we include a T in LGBTQ well hell yeah! And we are racially inclusive, male AND female ANNNNNDDDDDD nonbinary (and other flavors), cis and trans …. we are people that have experienced being thrown out of our homes, fired from jobs, abused on public transport, bullied in school, and traumatized by Section 28, devastated by a world that ignored a public health crisis that hit us first …. I mean, this is my big queer family. And a confused Raven who maybe doesn’t WANT to be evil, and a genderfucked Prince with a glittery embroidered vagina where their codpiece should be, and Principal BoysOrGirlsOrWhatever and all of it, the silly pop songs and transformed Abba, it’s all us.

And it’s all at the RVT. And for all it’s silly and rude, “Pricked” is 100% the adult panto that will make YOU feel at home, singing along, laughing, and forgetting, with your found family, for just a short moment (if only it could be forever) what a horrible crap world it is.

How much did I like it? Well, my darlings, I bought tickets before it even opened, and I’d seen it last year, so what does THAT say to you?

(This review is for a performance that took place Wednesday, December 8, 2021. It continues through January 6th and is selling out left right and center so <a href=”https://www.outsavvy.com/event/7325/pricked-the-rvt-panto-2021″>make plans to hang with your queer family</a> while you can!0

Sondheim’s “Follies” and The Art of Drag

August 20, 2021

On Wednesday I went to the Art of Drag class of 2020 showcase, unsurprisingly being held in 2021 but still at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. I like what Michael Twaits does with his students and love the thought of a bunch of new drag artists being released on the world that have the same positive attitude, lack of misogny, and fabulousness as Michael himself.

But I also love having the opportunity to watch Michael perform, which I haven’t had since before I moved house in June. He used one of his spotlight moments to do a fundraiser for Cabaret Versus Cancer (the founder of which was in the showcase). Those who put a paper item into the collection bucket got to pick a musical from which Michael would sing a song: I chose “Follies.” To my pleasure, Michael switched it up, making it “I think about drag.” And that pushed me to make my own lyrics, based on my life with four cats, and, for this week, 7 kittens and their two moms.

“The sun comes up, I think about cats
The litter box,I think about cats
I love tehm so much, but I’m losing my mind

I open cans, I think about cats
Talk to myself, and talk to the cats
I think they know that I am losing my mind

All livelong day doing oh so many chores
The litterbox burning bright
Sometimes they poop in the middle of the floor
Or on the side
Or out of sight

I dim the lights and think about cats
Those sleepless nights … did I hear the cats?
Was that the kitchen? What have they done this time?
I think I’m losing my mind.

All night and day doing oh so many chores
Is this the food that you like?
I know you liked it just the other day ….
What’s in your fur?
Why must they fight?

I go to bed and think about cats
Such sleepless nights, and I blame the cats
How did you get there? What have you broken this time?
I know I have lost my mind!

Review – A Christmas Carol – Guildford Shakespeare and Jermyn Street Theatre

December 28, 2020

It’s been a right old year, hasn’t it? I’ve been wanting to have some Christmas cheer more than ever, and seeing “A Christmas Carol” live, on stage, has been a Christmas tradition for me for well over 20 years (remember “A Tap Dance Christmas Carol” or “The Black Light Christmas Carol?” – oh, it’s just me, then). And when suddenly the government closed all the theaters down and every performance that could needed to move online …. well, the <a href=”https://www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk/a-christmas-carol/”>Guildford Shakespeare Company</a> did a great job with their <a href=”https://www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk/the-wind-in-the-willows-2015/”><I>Wind in the Willows</I></a> this summer, a play that gave me real hope for the format of semi-interactive Zoom theater, so when I heard they’d teamed up with Jermyn Street Theater to do A Christmas Carol – and with Brian Blessed! – I was determined to see it. A live streamed Christmas Carol – how perfect for Christmas 2020!

A brief note on technology: if you choose to see this, it’s best you are ready with Zoom preinstalled on your computer, and for heaven’s sake do NOT get on the microphone to ask people for help getting your tech issues sorted out as everyone will be able to hear it! The performance I watched suffered from having an audience member keep turning their microphone on after they were muted, and I didn’t want to hear their voices over my computer speakers any more than I would have wanted to listen to someone talk about a gall bladder operation while I was watching a show. The link and password will show up about 8 hours before the show, so you should have what you need to check that your technology is working long before the curtain rises – and we were given an extra five minutes or so to sort things out after the official start time. Also: this show can be participatory if you want to participate! If you do, leave your computer’s camera on and the cast may call on you at certain points during the show. (I did not as I live in a very small flat but others dressed up for the show and got very much into the spirit.)

The production is fairly close to the original story although with a few 2020 updates. Jim Findley as Scrooge was kitted out with hand san and comments about the “dreaded lurgy” that was going around, which set him up nicely to keep visitors to his office at twice arm’s length. The rest of the cast did quite a bit of multi-roling. I got a lot of pleasure out of Robin Morrisey as the most put upon Bob Cratchitt I’d ever seen – never realized the character had so much potential for comedy!

The special effects were decidedly NOT at cinema quality, but it’s not reasonable to expect this from this medium. Actually just having people interact with each other while they appeared to be in the same room having dinner together was a treat enough and a good reminder of days past and hopefully still to come. The invitations to join the Fezziwigs’ dance party were most welcome and taken up by a few audience members – it’s the kind of thing I always wished would happen at performances of “A Christmas Carol”! – but I must register a complaint about the food the Cratchitt’s had to eat – even if we were just pretending it was stage food, it seemed like about a potato and a chicken leg each and seeing how little they had (and listening to them talk about how it was a magnificent feast) was making me laugh. Please, a few more potatoes!

The big moments for the production were, of course, the scenes with Penelope Keith (Ghost of Christmas Past) and Brian Blessed (Ghost of Christmas Present). Blessed, of course, was born to play this role, as he’s practically the illustration from the Victorian editions of the story – bearded, giant, jolly, and rather fetching wearing a crown of holly. I was sorry that his singalong moment seemed so rushed – it was a good moment and I would have liked to have spent more time there. Keith, meanwhile, had the far less fun role, but she brought to it an ethereal presence well suited to a character that takes Scrooge through all of his regrets.

I’d say this was more of a family production than many darker versions of the Christmas Carol (suits me this year), with a brisk running time of 75 minutes – and attractively priced at £20. It’s selling out quickly, so if you want to get in while you can, pop over to the <a href=”https://www.guildford-shakespeare-company.co.uk/a-christmas-carol/”>Guildford Shakespeare Company site</a> and get a ticket bought. UPDATE: Only Wednesday left so chop chop!

Finally: a glass of mulled wine would be perfect with this show, so don’t forget to brew it up before the show begins!

Final performances will be on :

Tues 29 Dec, 7.30pm
Wed 30 Dec, 3pm
Wed 30 Dec, 7.30pm

Review – Trainers: A Theatrical Essay – Gate Theater

March 4, 2020

When you’re a critic, you learn that press releases aren’t always the truth. I mean, the truth can vary depending on who is telling it, so let’s say press releases sometimes don’t meet my truth. Let’s discuss the press release for Trainers:

“Set in a post gender future, Trainers… is part essay and part play. It follows a struggling writer who falls in with a group of depressed queer revolutionaries during a future civil war … [and] explores what it takes to challenge the politics of one’s time and how we can train for a revolution.

“Director Hestor Chillingworth said ‘For anyone who has questions about theatre, gender, power and hope – Trainers is a great place to come to ask them with us.’ ”

This is what was promised. I am a queer theater maker, and my partner is trans. I am interested in queer theater, gender, trans “work,” and, well, theater! I would have thought I was the ideal audience for this show, but …

Two actors are on stage. One appears to be cis female (Nicky Hobday); the other could be cis or trans but is called “he” in the program (Nando Messias) and is wearing a fabulous dress. They are standing on a stage with many objects on it – chairs, rolled carpets, a horse statue, an office chair, a stool, a bicycle, a bucket of paint, et cetera. They start talking – sometimes in turns, sometimes simultaneously – explaining a bit of the concept of what we are about to watch. It’s sort of an essay. It’s sort of inspired by Montaigne. The conceit is used that when one of them says “I” they are the writer of the work.

So … there is rather a long bit about essay writing, which seemed in the end to say that essays don’t have to have a point, and at some point the “I” starts to be a writer who is living in this post-apocalyptic future where people ride horses and parts of the city are walled off from others. “I” is a writer, in love with Stephen, who writes revolutionary pamphlets and is popular.

Beyond this … there is little sense of a real story, no narrative forward motion, and very little sense of real people being created on stage. It didn’t even really tie the metaphor of “trainers” in, despite numerous mention of personal trainers. Instead, the actors change clothes, eat paint and oil (or pretend to), and neither do nor say anything that to me indicated queerness or transness. The only scene that really struck me was very trans was one in which they attempted to negotiate a first sexual encounter with each other, knowing nothing of what sensitive bits of human machinery they might work with; but otherwise …

Trainers (c) Alex Harvey Brown – Nando Messias and Nicki Hobday


How to have a revolution? Challenging the politics of one’s times? I felt I got none of this, and only the slightest taste of there being other events going on besides the slight story of a possible romance. People in the audience were cheering wildly, but I felt this show was self indulgent and formless. It’s a shame, because both performers were quite compelling and I can imagine happily seeing them in a different production in the future. Trainers on for a three week run, though, so possibly there are many people out there who will find this show speaks to them. Me, it made me think I should put my head to doing more explicitly queer works, because while we all know the revolution will not be televised, this made me think it’s not going to be on the stage, either. Not this time, anyway.

(This review was for press night, which took place March 3, 2020. It continues through March 21st.)

Review – Darkfield Trilogy (Seance, Flight, Coma) – Three Shipping Containers at Lewis Cubitt Square

March 2, 2020

I like theater that pushes me: not by doing hamfisted triggery stuff about blood and abuse but stuff that challenges my comfort zones in solid, meatspace kinds of ways. One on one theater can do this easily; but there’s also much to be said for theater performed in the dark. Darkfield was going to push my claustrophobia buttons; but were they going to take it too far? I am simultaneously a bit of a coward and terribly intrigued by seeing what I can handle but also by the way my sensory perception changes when I don’t have access to light anymore. So, hey, maybe Darkfield didn’t actually want a person like me coming to review their shows at all; but I was fairly sure nobody would try to touch me by surprise, and I, er, cheated by having my partner come with me so in case I did get genuinely panicky I’d have someone there I could CHOOSE to touch.

So, what did I think I was going to see? (You can read what’s on the press release, I’ll tell you how I interpreted it.) First, for Seance: I am interested in 19th century spiritualism (especially after seeing the Smoke and Mirrors exhibit at the Wellcome), and what I was hoping for was a proper seance with glowing things floating in the air and hands coming out of the table. What I got was an audio experience, with, I believe, a moving table (authentic enough); it seemed that it was taking place with the various audience members participating but it was clear enough that what I was listening to was entirely a recording. In pitch blackness, it was easy enough to imagine there was someone walking around the room talking to us all; but reality was that the 20 of us were sat elbow to elbow around a table about 2 feet wide and with our backs against the wall, so clearly nobody was walking in the room at all. We were being told a story as it it were happening in front of us, but nothing ever was seen once the lights dropped. In some ways I was disappointed (as I’d love to experience a real seance!); but in this case, I just enjoyed what was pretty much a ghost story that you were part of, and it was good. Also, I didn’t get so freaked out I had to leave, and nobody touched me. This was, in the end, my favorite of all of them, and I’d highly recommend making time to attend this.

Number two was “Flight,” which took place in a shipping container that had rows of airline seats in it, and windows on the right. I was expecting to be in a plane that crashes, although I didn’t really know how they would handle it; I was incorrectly thinking that most of the experience would be aural. Again, no one tries to touch you, and there is no one to be seen, just heard in the headphones. For this one, there were moments where it was honestly so loud I had to take the headphones off, and I would have a little bit of a question about the safety of the sound levels. It was a thoughtful and interesting experience, but with the roar of an airplane constantly in the background, I missed too much of the dialogue, and for this reason I must say this one was the least effective of the trio. There was an experience and some philosophy but over all BBBRRRRROOOOWWWWWWMMMMMM .
IMG_20200229_203937_1[1]
Finally, the most physically uncomfortable part of the night: Coma. You’d think that walking into a room set up with bunk beds that you’d be set – half an hour of just lying on your back, doing nothing. But with the temperatures outside near zero and a nice wind blowing to boot, I found I was cold and shivering for most of this, and I became focused on trying to keep my hands warm (as my feet lost sensation due to the cold – with boots on, natch!) and just in too much discomfort. I found the story telling for this section interesting, but I was expecting to be a lot closer to what it was actually like to be in a coma a la Shannon Yee’s Reassembled. Darkfield was interested in taking you on a slightly different journey, one which included smell-o-vision. But I wasn’t able to connect from the material – or disconnect from reality – enough to fully immerse myself in this one. Still, as pop-in, pop-out theater, any of these would be fun (at 30 minutes or less), and the nearby cafes and bars are actually a real treat. And it was cool to walk out into a heightened sense of reality from all of that time straining with your ears and skin and nose to find out the information your eyes could no longer give you. Try to make time for it while it’s on.

(This review is for an opening weekend performance that I saw on Saturday, February 29th, 2020. It continues through March 22nd.)

Review – The Dog Walker – Jermyn Street Theater

February 21, 2020

A neurotic writer asks a dog walker to assist her with the insurmountable task of taking her pet into the outside world. They meet. Romance ensues. Seems like a very logical plot for a play, right? Only in Paul Minx’s The Dog Walker, it is most clear that what we are watching is not a romantic comedy, although it does seem to be teetering on comedy lines. Keri (Victoria Yeates) is a high strung writer who sits in her apartment window shouting abuse (and encouragement) at the people that pass by on the sidewalk below; Herbert Doakes (Andrew Dennis) is a Caribbean immigrant who has been unlucky in love (although he’s quite gifted in the job department as he also works as a custodian). Both of them seem to be very believable and interesting characters.

However, as Doakes reveals himself scene by scene (he’s mostly a figure of comedy in the first act), he begins to seem creepier and creepier. He’s not just a dog walker, or a middle aged man in a strained marriage, he’s a slightly delusional stalkery person with a very poor sense of boundaries. Keri similarly doesn’t have very good boundaries but her offers of alcohol and general hostility don’t seem quite as frightening – she’s ignorable. But for rather a lot of the time after Doakes comes back to Keri’s apartment with her dog’s ashes, I began to expect the play would take a much more sinister turn. In the end, Keri’s offer to marry simply for health insurance makes an exchange of sex for non-romantic motives seem nearly sensible … but I couldn’t believe she would want to do this given the personal safety issues.

The Dog Walker - Victoria Yeates (Keri) and Andrew Dennis (Herbert) at Jermyn Street Theatre. Credit to Robert Workman

Victoria Yeates and Andrew Dennis. Credit to Robert Workman


The final act of this play treats the earlier issue of the ghost that Keri sees more realistically, grounding it in a personal tragedy so that it becomes more of an element of her personality and life story rather than just the leftovers of an accident she saw through her window. And yet, despite the fact that this revelation should have generated a lot my sympathy for her, I found myself just not finding the truth in her story. Losing a child is actually the kind of thing that draws a much more solid line through a person’s life, and the depression she was experiencing in the first act could in no way be seen as actually being caused by grieving. I just didn’t buy it. It felt tacked on.

Although the characters they inhabited seemed drawn with rough edges, I found both Yeates and Dennis very watchable. She seemed perfectly the high strung writer who wasn’t coping with real life very well; he was a compelling man with richer layers underneath the persona of “comedy relief dog walker.” But ultimately the relationship that developed between them was not one I was able to swallow. Minx says in the program that he paused this play for some time; I feel it would benefit from more time to find itself and its story still.

Review – Sleeping Beauty – Greenwich Theater

December 7, 2019

Andrew Pollard’s annual Panto offering at the Greenwich Theater has become one of my seasonal favorites … it has a genuine home-grown feel, with fresh talent, gaudy and cheery sets, and an emphasis on storytelling, music, and fun that make it heads above the very commercial outings that make it on the ATG circuit. Putting a TV star on stage, or the winner of a “talent” contest, might be a good way to sell tickets, but it does not guarantee a good show. But taking a talented team and bringing them back together year after year – and fleshing the group out fresh drama school graduates getting lucky breaks – ensures the show itself is the star, and lucky audience members get to see the results – a panto with lots of laughs at a price you can afford.

This year the panto is Sleeping Beauty and it’s a celebration of the Greenwich theater’s 50th anniversary. Now, it seems unlikely that this theater is actually only 50 years old, but it did actually wake from a “long sleep” in the 60s, when it was refurbished after spending many years as a bombed out wreck. So the story of a young actor discovering a treasure in the storage area of the old theater isn’t too far off – only in the version we see on stage, what Ewan (Regan Burke) finds is a magic egg – the Fairy Faberge (Funlola Olufunwa) that transports him back from the swinging 60s to Russia in the age of the Czar.

Now the Russia scenes were where I was really grooving on this show. The backdrops of painted buildings with spiraling eggs on top were so pretty, and I loved the interiors that had designs taken off of Russian eggs. It’s also not the fantasy world I usually think of for Sleeping Beauty, though it was very much a fantasy because the Tsar was “Ivan the Slightly Irritable” (Martin Johnston) and his enemy was Rasputin (Anthony Spargo), who got a loud accompaniment of “Rah Rah Rasputin” every time he came on stage, much to MY delight (I’m a fan of music of that era). I think Baba Yaga would have made more sense, but she doesn’t have a catchy tune. The Princess (Anastasia – of course! – Esme Bacalla-Hayes) was pretty and lovable and had SUCH a voice, can I say her version of “Seasons of Love” was my musical highlight of the evening?

Of course we all know that neither the male nor female lead can be the star of the show – it has to be the dame! And Andrew Pollard as Tsarina Bertha delivers in spades, with an endless series of corny costumes, many bad jokes (I honestly had no idea a black pudding was shaped like a sausage), and enough ad lib to keep the rest of the cast very much on their toes. The designated audience target was not playing along very well the night I went, however, and everything seemed fairly controlled – things will probably become even sillier as the run progresses (this review was on press night, a week after it started).

Things became VERY silly when the Anastasia and the court reconvened in the 60s – in fact, they went to the moon! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dame in a space suit, and I’ve certainly never pelted the stage with moon rocks before! Somehow the kids managed to NOT actually hurt anyone, and we of course had a happy ending – much like the Greenwich Theater has.

That said – I almost feel like this panto was playing it a bit safe – almost no political jokes, although a reasonable dose of off color ones. I wonder: has the political situation become so dire that even a smaller theater is afraid to tweak the nose of the rich? Or perhaps Pollard was thinking his jokes could go stale overnight with an election smack in the middle of the run! Hard to say but I think the rich and politicians could have used QUITE a bit more being made fun of. Hopefully next year we’ll get a bit of zip and zing back in it – Panto is one of the few places where the disempowered fight back, and I want to see more of this!

(This review is for a show that took place on Friday, November 29, 20119. It runs until January 12th.)

Review – “Master Harold and the Boys” and “The Ice Cream Boys” – National and Jermyn Street Theaters

October 18, 2019

To understand South Africa, I think there is much to be said for understanding the works of Athol Fugard; and to enjoy “The Ice Cream Boys,” I think it is good to know the history of South Africa. “Master Harold and the Boys” is, in fact, a perfect set up to understand a play about the modern condition of South Africa, in which freedom has been won but so little equality has been achieved. In “Master Harold,” currently showing at the National, we are faced with a situation of incredible inequality, where two grown men have to bow and scrape before a teenaged boy who’s power over them is less about the fact that they work for his mother and more about the color of his skin. The play teases out both the incredible humanity that could exist between the races in this situation and the incredible inhumanity that the entire structure of apartheid enforced; it is a beautiful piece of theater, very touching, and Lucien Msamati gives a masterful performance as ballroom dancing champion Sam. Its hour and forty minutes is worth it to the last drop.

The apartheid government kept this play from being staged, but forty years later things in South Africa are very different. In “The Ice Cream Boys,” currently playing at thte Jermyn Street Theatre, Gail Louw puts Jacob Zuma (Andrew Francis), fourth president of South Africa, in a hospital room with white Ronnie Kasrils (Jack Klaff), and a different kind of power play spins out. Zuma and Kasrils fought together to liberate South Africa, but Kasrils sees Zuma as a traitor to the cause of equality. Zuma, meanwhile, sees Kasrils as a traitor to himself – he once saw him as a brother, but Kasrils has taken actions to directly discredit Zuma.

As they recount their history together, the nurse (Bu Kunene) appears several times playing other people in South Africa – Mandela, Zuma’s uncle – giving other people’s views on Zuma’s life. But in the end, fending off Zuma’s play for her and also giving her own opinions, she delivers a cutting analysis of how this president is seen by the people he was meant to serve – as selfish and out of touch with what is needed to make South Africa flourish.

While I had been hoping for a much more ramped up interaction between the two men, I found this way of learning about South Africa’s history in the years SINCE “Master Harold” very interesting. Francis is magnetic and self assured, while Klaff seems believably like someone who once carried a machine gun to make a revolution happen. But somehow the impact is not as strong as I’d hoped for, I think because Kasrils’ work in the security services to me implicated him in other kinds of crimes against South Africa. Perhaps he only rose to power once the ANC was in; but I doubt that his behavior was as high minded as this play makes it.

Overall, my recommendation is to see both plays while they’re on; they paint a fascinating picture of a country with a troubled past and an unclear present.

(Master Harold and the Boys is on at the National Theater until December 17th; The Ice Cream Boys is on at Jermyn Street until November 2nd.)

Review – Hello Again – The Union Theater

September 8, 2019

I’ll say this for Schnitzler’s “La Ronde” – there are a million different ways to slice it on stage. Michael John La Chiusa has turned it into a musical, following the original’s form of “each scene being about a couple, the next scene featuring one person from the previous scene and one new person,” even going so far as to mirror the cast of characters – the sex worker, the soldier etc., ending with the sex worker … although Schnitzler has taken some liberties, such has making the poet a writer and the count a senator … but really, it is a very close parallel to the original work. This is the show, “Hello Again,” that is currently on stage at the Union Theatre.

Stylistically, though, with this framework in place, the music and settings off each piece are hugely varied, almost as if it were intended to be a sourcebook for examples of many different styles (rather in the way Chicago played on the different sort of vaudeville acts). Together it adds up to a fantastic showcase for the cast (although the changes in times from World War I to the Sixties and the Seventies did leave my head spinning). And the sexual encounters, while not involving nudity, did manage to get some real electricity going on stage – especially fun in the scene with the nurse seducing her (hopeful) charge. The heat on stage even seemed to hit the fire monitoring system, as we were forced to leave due to an unruly alarm mistaking smoke for actual danger.

Of the cast, my favorite for pure musical joy was Ellen O’Grady, who opened and closed the piece with a warm, winning voice that spoke to me of years on the stage. It seemed almost a shame to have so many people in the cast – in that it seemed a waste to only have each of them in two numbers! I mean, come on, we got to the seventies, where was the orgy? At least we got to have some same sex scenes, both in a scene set in the early 20th century and one hitting the drugs-and-disco era.

Overall, though, I didn’t find this show blew me away, in part because the episodic nature of the text made it hard to build dramatic tension, narrative, or character. It’s a problem shared by the original to be sure. Still, as a night of showcase moments, it was pleasant enough and adds a good balance to the hardcore musical or theater goer’s diet.

(This review is for opening night, which took place on Friday, August 20th, 2019. It continues through September 21st.)