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

July 12, 2017 by

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

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

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


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

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

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


Review – The Ferryman – Royal Court (transferring to the Gielgud Theater)

May 20, 2017 by

There is nothing like having the curtains rise and feeling this wave of emotion rolling off of the stage before even one word of a play has been said. The emotion I’m talking about here is confidence and pride: it’s an entire room full of actors, those on the stage and those hiding behind it waiting for their cues, all thinking as one: I am in the best thing happening right now and every one of you is damned lucky to be here, and you know it. And we did know it. And, well, they were right, not just that I was lucky to be there, standing (standing!) so far on the side of the stage that I never saw one character for most of a scene, but that I was watching the best thing on stage right now and likely for all of this year. The Ferryman is a miracle, really, and although it’s transferring and I could have held out to see it at The Gielgud, no, I wanted to see it in the teeny, intimate Royal Court, and I wanted to be there while the energy was crackling and every person sat down was expecting nothing short of a miracle. They, and I, were not disappointed.

What do you need to know about this show? It’s about a family living on a farm in Ireland in the early 80s, and the discovery of the body of the head of the household’s brother in a bog – where it’s been since he was shot and “disappeared” – raises, pretty literally, ghosts for everyone, but most especially for Quinn Carney (Paddy Considine) and his sister in law Caitlin (Laura Donnelly). They’ve had to try to move forward with their lives while being held back just as if a chain held their collars to a stick in the ground – that stick being the unknown fate of their brother and husband Seamus.

I worried that this play was going to be a horrible weepy overpolitical drag, because I hate political plays – I like plays to be about the relationships between people. And oh, how The Ferryman took that vein and went deep. This is so much a play about people – about love and hate and the ties that bind us together and the words that untie and undo us – about how you decide who to hate and who to love and who is family and who is not – about how you decide what sort of compromises you can live with to be able to get on with that thing called life. We get some background about what the political elements are in play – the Easter Uprising very nicely brought up in a character-illuminating story moment – but everything all comes together not to lecture us on right and wrong but to show us people, complex and conflicted and oh so very real in their flaws and hopes and bitternesses. These characters were every bit as believable to me as the smell of baking dinner that wafted through the auditorium at the start of Act Two.

And the construction of this play – oh, the construction and destruction that takes place over just one day in time – it is a thing of rare beauty. We have very little of back story and lots of tale telling between people, between bragging teenaged boys, between curious young girls and their Aunt Maggie Far Away (Brid Brennan), between long-winded, dreaming Tom Kettle (John Hodgkinson) and his neighbors, between liars and the people they wish to deceive. And we have some singing and dancing, all completely natural and joyous; and eating; and quiet moments; and people who are angry from selfishness and angry from being done wrong; and people who have buried their hurts for a long, long time and see them rising at last to the surface like, well, a body will after it has filled with enough gas from decomposing. But not in a peat bog; never in that deadest water will a body rise again. And just for a moment of amazement we have not just a life rabbit but a goose on stage, and miracle of miracles and actual living baby, because life does actually make that full circle even if we don’t see it on stage.

But in this play, we do; we see beginning to end; we see the outcome of what men’s hands wrought and women can choose to untangle or spin into a noose. It was all a tremendous emotional journey (I cried a bit) and at its end, with nearly three and one half hours on my feet, stuffed in a corner, as barely there as Aunt Maggie in her chair, I felt not a moment’s exhaustion, but just that exultation that I have but rarely felt at the end of a truly tremendous show given its all by a team of spectacular talent, and I felt grateful that I could have been there and shared that long moment with them all.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Monday, May 15th, 2017. Tonight is its last night at the Royal Court before it transfers to The Gielgud. Do not hesitate to make your ticket purchase now.)

Review -Magic Flute – Charles Court Opera at Kings Head Theater

May 15, 2017 by

Walking into the King’s Head Theater, I was amazed to see the space fully transformed. The exit doors were still in place, but look! We stood inside a jungle! Creepers twined up the walls, ferns sprouted from the railings, and an inpenetrable canopy of leaves blocked the ceiling from view. Combined with the normal damp and warmth of this enclosed space, it was very much like being in the Amazon … or perhaps somewhere on a mountainside in New Guinea. It was wholly exotic, and a marvellous concept for a Magic Flute. I had no idea what else Charles Court Opera had in store for us, but I was very excited to be finding out!

Our Tamino (Oliver Brignall) was an intrepid English explorer who has been caught by three ladies (Jennifer Begley, Sarah Champion, Polly Leach) who’ve mistaken him for a wild animal. Amusingly, each finds him attractive and hopes to discourage the others so as to get him for herself … but they all scatter, leaving Papageno (Matthew Kellet) to arrive, birdcage in tow, to get the credit for rescuing Tamino.

And then, well, you know, we have the rest of the show, which generally follows closely to the original but has a lot of clever rhymes (occasionally slangy) thrown in that make it a pleasure to listen to – important as we’re not given any supertitles to crib us through it. Being forced to pay attention to what they singers are saying as well as whether or not they hit the notes – well, that was a change! There were occasional problems with following the words – the Queen of the Night (Nicola Said) had particularly bad diction in her spoken dialogue, and occasionally when a character had their back turned to my side of the audience, I couldn’t catch what they were saying – but overall, forcing us to listen, well! I felt like, for once, the audience was really engaged, and not just watching a concert.

A most terrifying Queen of the Night

The Magic Flute, Hannah Sawle as The Queen of the Night, photo Bill Night

Costuming and special effects isn’t really what Magic Flute is supposed to be about, but there was so much charm and surprise in Charles Court’s interpretation that it’s impossible to remain silent on the subject. The use of a trio of bird puppets to discourage Papageno (and Pamina, Emily Jane Thomas) from self-harming … the hysterical creepy giant Papagena puppet … the REAL FLAMES that were brought out when it was time for Tamino to face his trials … the tattoos down the Queen of the Night’s chin … the overall effect, of jungly savage scariness really amplified the dichotomy the story was trying to pull out, of a contrast between light and darkness, between civilization and superstition. And it made it possible for the magic, for once, to seem real. In fact, it was real: it was stage magic of the highest order, done on a cheese paring budget but with all of the “gouda” things left intact. And if you think that pun was uncalled for, well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you. This is without doubt the most imaginative interpretation of the Magic Flute I’ve ever seen and the wordplay only made it better. Go!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, May 12th, 2017. It continues through June 4th and is already mostly sold out so GET ON IT.)

Review – Oh Yes Oh No – Louise Orwin at Camden People’s Theater

May 10, 2017 by

You know that thing where there’s a really great show you only barely heard about before it completely sold out? Yeah. This is one of them. As of the time I am writing this review, Oh Yes Oh No only had four tickets left for tonight. Yes, tonight. It’s sold out tomorrow. So this, loyal readers, is your heads up. Dash away online before you finish reading this and get your ticket purchased, or make the attempt to do waitlisting for the final performances of Oh Yes Oh No. If you want a night of theater that made you feel like you just got a blackjack to the back of the head, Louise Orwin’s one person show is it.

I did not know what to expect from this show. I thought I was going to get to hear someone talk about how wanting to be female and sexual, or sexually submissive, isn’t really approved in our society. These things are (mostly) true. But I thought it was going to be funny, an idea I stuck to even more strongly when I saw there were Barbie dolls on stage. What I didn’t expect was to be pulled into someone else’s dark nightmare populated by horrors inflicted internally and externally, by society, men and her/your/the self. You are told you can run away, but you will not. You will want to sit there until the end. You will want to see that there will be an end.

In the world of SM, sex is play and people engage in fantasies that are discussed and consented to beforehand. But the character of this play has a problem. What she likes – being hit, being choked, being hurt so much it’s nearly dangerous – seems wrong. And for her, there’s a double bind, because these things have been done to her in a situation where she did not consent. She was attacked She was raped. And now, she has to deal with the fact that she can both be seen as asking for it because she fantasized about violence and objectification, and of being in the horrible situation of not being able to ask for it any more … that is, to not be able to ask for what she finds hot. Being raped takes away way more choices than I might ever have thought.

Orwin makes many of these elements come to life in her show in the oddest ways. She pulls a member of the audience in to participate (we had a lovely leather jacketed short haired woman radiating all sorts of androgyny), and while they are asked if they consented, their answers are read off of cards. It plays with consent and in some ways highlights the fact that in a sexual situation, you might give your consent, but you may actually do so unwillingly … because you’re saying what you have to say to keep yourself safe. Because, actually, saying no and being hurt less may be a better option. I’m sorry, this is true. I’m sorry this is true. It is true. It just simply is.

Overhead, at times, we get to hear the voices of women talking about rape, about their rapes, about how it affected them, about how they remember it, about how it has changed their fantasy life, about how people think it should change them. But these aren’t all there is to this show. We have Barbie and Ken re-enacting sexual desire in a “safe” space, a “play” space, a space where dolls can spread their legs and bounce against each other and it’s all laughs. It’s a space that doesn’t reflect real life, where the people who prey on women are all so often their friends and acquaintances. We can walk away from the dolls. Barbie doesn’t cry and she isn’t hurt. It’s all fun.

As the show evolves, we are forced to accept Orwin’s statements, that she can want to be horribly treated and love it, with the fact that victim treatment struggles with shaming and the implicit belief that if you like a good smack in the face, you’re damaged, somehow. It’s a complex piece to navigate from the inside, but everything, honestly, all fell together so well from the outside. The struggle she faced was so real. I’ve never seen this subject handled on stage before and it was both moving and poignant, and clever and insightful as a staged work, hitting on so many levels.

I could go on at length. I could write a thesis on this show. But I’m just going to stop now, while there are still four tickets left, and tell you: go.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017. It closes May 11th.)

Review – Coming Clean: Life as a Naked House Cleaner – HOTBED Festival, Camden People’s Theater

May 6, 2017 by

So if you were going to go out for a fun night with a girlfriend, what would be you idea of a great date? For the many ladies who crowded the living room of an anonymous house (charmingly decorated with typewriters and old board games – really, it was like a movie set) in Bounds Green, it was clear that watching a handsome gay man explain to us the tips and tricks of housecleaning – while naked – was absolutely an ideal way to spend the evening. It became even nicer as we were handed glasses of prosecco. Our performer was still striding around fully clothed – greeting each of us and requesting us to fill out a quick survey – but, hey, it did seem very likely he might take off his clothes. The atmosphere was extremely convivial – how could anything go wrong? Coming Clean seemed like it was to be a dream come true!

This was true for us as we enjoyed the lap of luxury – Ethan Mechare kept us very well fed, and we were allowed to bring our own drinks as well – but Ethan’s story about his experiences in the dangerous underground of paid hourly labor was a source of likely nightmares for many of us. Well, it could have been – he’s certainly suffered enough sexual harassment on the job to keep an entire building full of lawyers running full-tilt – but in story after story we were kept laughing and on the edge of our seats. Who could have ever known the strange secrets of an east end cabbie? Just how many edge “philias” and “philes” were out there (not to mention hiding in full sight in the audience)? And why did they think they could most easily get them satisfied by calling a naked house cleaner out to try them out on?

Ethan’s story was punctuated and threaded together by his own passions – Oprah, cleanliness, showing off – but he made sure to add in lots of juicy extras that kept us all on tenterhooks. A real highlight for me – or perhaps we should say a “memorable moment” – came when he was discussing a client who wanted him to watch a little internet clip with him. Innocent enough – only it was from a site called We were also shown this clip and let me say I have not been so shocked in the theater since Kim Noble showed a video of himself taking a crap in a church. The whole room was in a state of near riot and my mind was polluted in a way I will never be able to undo. It led me to hysterical reveries about what it meant when Ethan’s clients asked if he was “discreet.” A lot of times it’s a code for “are you obviously gay,” but I wondered if, for that client, it was a way of asking if there were any visible signs of cake on Ethan’s body – a little chocolate icing in the waistband of the trousers, a bit of crumbs clinging to his socks – the possibilities were endless.

In the end, I’m pleased to say, our performer did share with us what his clients paid (ever so much more) to see, only as a cherry on the (dare I say it) cake rather than as the body (did it again) of the performance. The whole thing was warm and merry and really just a completely lovely night out – I can hardly recommend it enough!

(This review is of a performance that took place May 5th, 2017. The final night of this performance in the Hotbed Festival is May 6 but it will be transferring to Brighton. Drinking before and during this show is highly recommended, but leave your hangups behind.)

Review – Bridle – Clamour Theater at Camden People’s Theater

May 1, 2017 by

Bridle” was billed as a “satire on feminine sexuality, and the attempts to control it.” It started out with three women kind of dancing on stage, dressed in somewhat sexy clothes, but wearing rubber horse heads. I wondered if we were going to go into some kind of long exposition on pony play, but no such luck; my companion looked around nervously then whispered in my ear that when he was in uni, his friends used to drop acid and run around the house wearing rubber horse heads just like the ones the actresses had on. As it turns out, neither of us were on the right track at all. I was distracted shortly in by a voice overhead that seemed to be telling the three women they’d been arrested for various inappropriate behaviors, such as sending naked photos via cell phone … I was thinking, is this the logical extension of the “extreme pornography” act, which criminalized depictions of many different forms of women’s sexual pleasure? Were we going to be facing the logical results of banning all of these things?

Well … no, that wasn’t the case, either, and while the police element came back it was all clearly purely metaphorical (although at the end I was wondering if one of the characters had started stalking her boyfriend). What we had here was the kind of things I discuss with my best friend all of the time. Why isn’t it okay for me to laugh loud and be the center of attention? Why are women supposed to be demure? Why do men persist in the virgin/whore dichotomy? Why does it feel like enjoying sex is something to be ashamed off? Seriously, it’s the 21st fucking century, why is everything still so backwards, and why does being female feel like such a restraint on our ability to genuinely express ourselves, our desires, our goals, and our wants? Why is being sexually positive still seen as a bad thing? AAARGH!

The three characters told little narratives, sometimes together, sometimes alone, often times talking to a voice (there were several) from overhead. They talked about sexual expression, laughing, the censure of other women, wanting things that you know aren’t good for you, being in sexual situations that are not positive but are still hot: a mixture of good bad, and messy, but all feeling very real about the territory that is how women really experience our lives. Yeah, being choked seems very “oh how can this be consensual,” but, if it is, seriously, who’s business is it? And yet we go through the days with people constantly looking over our shoulders, twitching their curtains, and judging us: are we good girls or bad, are we behaving ourselves or out of control, are we asking for it or being sad losers and begging for it. No matter what, it seems when it comes to female sexuality, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid being judged.

The show itself didn’t make any judgments on its characters; they were allowed to exist in their complexity without comment. But to me the message seemed clear; from your friends to your relatives, to your boyfriends to your neighbors; as a woman, it’s an endless fight to be true to yourself, and you can almost never be honest in any way without falling prey to a host of negativity and corrections about what the “right” behavior ought to be. We don’t get answers on how to change things; but this show is a start for a discussion about learning to be honest and learning to step away from what “society” thinks is right and head toward a more authentic examination about how women really are … without the bridles on.

(This review is for a performance that took place on 26 April 2017 as a part of the Camden People’s Theater’s inaugural “Hotbed” festival.)

Review – Sweat – Studio 54

April 13, 2017 by

American factory workers look over their shoulder at how the world has fallen apart around them. Two of them know their destroyed lives are because of their own actions; but the greater disruption birthing their newly rotten lives has been forces beyond their control. It’s Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which Bill Brantley says ” is the first work from a major American playwright to summon, with empathy and without judgment, the nationwide anxiety that helped put Donald J. Trump in the White House.” That’s a pretty broad claim, but I’m not going to dispute it; this play is timely in all the ways theater aspires to be – grabbing the neck of the rabbit with greyhound speed and shake, shake, shaking it in front of our transfixed eyes. But underneath the explosion of now is a play I feel suffers from serious structural flaws. It is not just watchable but fascinating, yet, let the scales of our collective trauma fall away from our eyes and we see Sweat sacrifices truth and dramatic legs in exchange for easy answers and audience friendly resolutions. Let me convince you.

First, I want to talk about what is right about this play. First, the ensemble just completely hits it. Not a bit about their performances left me disbelieving in their characters. We have three female workers (at what I believe is a pipe plant): Cynthia (Michelle Wilson), her best friend Tracey (Johanna Day), and Jessie (Alison Wright); Cynthia and Tracey’s sons, who also work at the factory; and bartender Stan (James Colby), who, alongside Cynthia’s sort of ex-husband Brucie (John Earl Jelks) serves as a sort of wake-up call about the human cost of factory work: Stan was injured so badly he was paid out, but not enough, while Brucie has been laid off and just can’t seem to get his life together anymore. All of them drink a fair bit; none of them seem to get a whole lot of joy out of life; the lot of them value their friendships with each other quite highly. Work is unpleasant but a source of identity; and without it, we start to slip into the cracks. Leaving the factory for something else, like Cynthia’s son Chris (Khris Davis) is talking about? That’s turning your back on your clan, on your family, on what you’ve all worked for. You’ve got the factory and your future and past if you have the job. The cast makes that feel real; the self-lies and shortsightedness of just one or two generations of stability feel very much like a reality you, as an audience member, can buy into. And the stories they tell, of a grandfather who worked with his hands to carve beautiful things, of dreams to travel the world that never came to fruition, seem like tiny slices of reality all working together to construct a believable world.

Nottage works hard to create characters we can invest and believe in. The easy friendship between Chris and Jason (Will Pullen), based on drinking and basketball and working together, slides seamlessly across any color barrier; ditto Cynthia’s friendship with Jason’s mom Tracey, built on years of slogging together and shared experience. And for both pairs, we get to see the children being responsible as their parents struggle – dramatically speaking, something I’ve seen rarely but am too familiar with in real life. But, in the play, as things start to tighten up, suddenly the question of race rises to the front and people start to talk about each other as being in competition. The busboy at the bar, Oscar (Carlo Alban), is suddenly seen as a foreign intruder, despite being a US citizen; and the ties that had formed over years start to fall apart.

But … but … drip by drip, story by story, the reasons that accumulate for why these people’s lives fall apart start to feel like a narrative that’s been pasted on top of a real situation to provide answers that, I honestly feel, were palatable ones for the audience present. Why did people lose their jobs? NAFTA. Why has racism risen in America? Not enough jobs to go around. Why didn’t people in factory jobs retrain for other stuff? They were discouraged to leave their community by their friends. Why the rise in anti-immigrant hysteria? Actually, let’s pick this apart.

So as this play tells it, the rise in hatred against immigrants was caused by the perception that they were “moving to America and taking our jobs away.” But as set up by Nottage, the “immigrant” in this case is someone who is an American citizen. So I ask: what is it that makes people decide to ignore this kind of truth? How could Tracey choose to ignore a job posting Oscar shows her that makes it clear people are being recruited in to the jobs at the plant at lower wages? How could Tracey really deceive herself about her ability to deal with her friend being promoted and make it be about race instead of skill or personality fit? You have to ignore a lot about what has gone on in the last ten years to make such facile conclusions about the origins of the divides that exist in America today, and while I agree that it’s been NAFTA that has decimated the health of the American working class, the rise in racism and anti-immigrant hysteria does not have such similarly simple origins.

But that’s what we’re given, A happened and caused B, and of course it’s very clearly delineated. This simplicity goes through to the ending of the play, which to my mind was just like a group hug after a therapy session – it felt nice but it felt inappropriate and off kilter and just way, way too easy. And that’s how I left this play, feeling like there were some really important subjects that needed to be addressed, but I’d just been given simple answers from one point of view that I didn’t even think represented my point of view much less reality. I mean, maybe even the belief that people can be color blind in a society of plenty was just an illusion I had in the 90s. Maybe we can really never work together. And maybe people always slip to drugs and violence when they’re poor. I just don’t think our stories and our world is as easy to understand as this play makes it out to be. And for that reason, I think that Sweat, while fully embedded in the world of today, is not going to wind up having dramatic legs, because it’s the questions that remain unanswered, the ones we take home with us, that are left out. We are not living in a facile world and we don’t need to be spoonfed easy answers like we, the audience members of today, are children. Push us more. Make us question ourselves. We need it.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, April 8, 2016.)

Review – Miss Nightingale – Mr Bugg Presents at The Vaults (Waterloo)

April 9, 2017 by

The evening after I went to see Miss Nightingale, I was talking to a friend who works in burlesque. “I went to a show about queer love in World War II last night!” I told her. “It had boys kissing and saucy songs and everything! And it was set in a nightclub!” She was sold. And while there is much more to this show than my elevator speech contains, those few sentences capture much of what there is to love about the new musical that is Miss Nightingale. For those who won’t like its themes, well, they’ve probably already run off. But if you’re looking to make up your mind about whether or not to go, let me tell you more.

It’s the 1940s, in England. Injured air ace and war hero Sir Frank Worthington-Blythe (Nicholas Coutu-Langmead) has decided that running a nightclub would be just the thing. With rationing, there’s a lot of shady characters running around … including Tom (Niall Kerrigan), who’s sourcing booze from parts unknown. They meet to do a deal, and the mobster has his girlfriend Maggie (Tamar Broadbent) audition. Suddenly Sir Frank has found the entertainment for his venue … a blonde northern lass who works as a nurse by day and a singer of bawdy songs by night … a real (Florence) Nightingale. She gets her tunes from George (Conor O’Kane), a Polish pianist who … good heavens, does Sir Frank know him? And do they have the hots for each other? And are they going to somehow maneuveur the heavily mined waters of gay love during the era when it was a ticket to a jail sentence, not to mention social ostracism? Why yes they are … but not without a few spectacular crashes (and kisses) on the way.

Nicholas Coutu-Langmead & Conor O'Kane in Miss Nightingale Photo, Robert Workman

Nicholas Coutu-Langmead & Conor O’Kane in Miss Nightingale Photo, Robert Workman

Although the romance between Frank and George provides a nice structure for the show, most of the fun is actually in the scenes where Broadbent is front and center, entertaining the punters (both real and imaginary). Her sassy songs, about “shutting my pussy in the door,” “getting your sausage where you can” and other single-entendre subjects, provided lots of laughs and were even more fun done as a 1940s musical revue. But there was much more music than just that, as we had several songs developing Frank and George’s romance, providing character insights on Nightingale, and generally fleshing out the entire show as a musical. All of this was done with a live band on stage staffed by the various performers, whose skills include drumming, piano, triangle, ukelele, and a host of other instruments.

Miss Nightingale whoops it up for the troops Photo Robert Workman

There’s some tension introduced via…. wait, no, I’ll skip that spoiler! The various plot twists seemed a bit B-movie, but the theme (gay romance in WWII) and the decision to have a Northern girl as the big star won me over (even if Nightingale herself needed a bit more fleshing out). And it’s really a war story that I haven’t seen told before …. maybe the setting is forced or hard to believe, but given the attention that’s been paid to the fiftieth anniversary of the decision to decriminalize homosexuality in the UK, it feels like a story we’re all ready to hear. People in the 1940s were gay just like they are now, but the people who told stories back in the day didn’t talk about this. It’s time, and Miss Nightingale is a fun look back at what might have been as well as a reminder of what most certainly was. I suspect they’ll be finding more than just a few show biz types in their audience as it progresses; we do love us a good night out, after all.

(Miss Nightingale The Musical continues at The Vaults until May 20th. This review was for a performance that took place April 5th. Remember for this show the entrance is from a side street of Lower Marsh, so don’t get lost trying to access the normal tunnel like I did.)

Review – The Caravan Society – National Trust’s Queer City pop up members’ bar

March 29, 2017 by

The period between the end of the Christmas revels and Easter is a bit of a dead time theatrically speaking. I mean, sure, there’s been a couple of big openings (Almeida’s Hamlet – all sold out; Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – good enough; Imelda Staunton in Virginia Woolf – a bit long) but nothing earthshaking. Into this wasteland (by London standards, and I am spoiled) strutted a glimmer of hope in the odd guise of the National Trust, hosting a Marchtime celebration called Queer City London, which appeared to be some daytime walks accompanied by some rather vague evening shenanigans at some place called The Caravan Society. When the tickets went on sale, I wasn’t really entirely sure what this “club” was going to be, so I got a variety of tickets – to a tour, to an evening opening with no program, and to one of the Queer City Nights series of “talks, debates and performances” that came with a slightly higher price tag. The evening events appeared to be selling out under my feet … and I was just getting my tickets 15 minutes after they had gone on sale! Good God, what kind of madness was this? Had I inadvertently come upon the hottest event of the London spring calendar?

The tour of historic queer Soho was great for context on what life was like in London before the decriminalization of homosexuality. But given that all of the ticketed evening events were at a recreation of “The Caravan Society” – one of the clubs regularly raided during the bad old days – I have to say I wasn’t really feeling very optimistic based on the unimpressive preview of the space we had at the end of our walk. Some couches against a wall, a bit of drapery hanging from the ceiling – we were supposed to believe that this was the “pouf’s brothel” so hatefully described in the old police papers? The little table with a bit of makeup on it and some photostat letters just did nothing for me. It was like trying to imagine a fantastic roast dinner from a dried up bone. It wasn’t even the same building as the original Caravan Society. I felt let down.

But I held out hope for what would grow when it was night time, the venue was filled with cheerful people, and the lovely MC Ralph Bogard was working at stirring up some magic. And when I came back on Thursday night – cheekily asking for a ticket at the door – I suddenly found myself in a vibrant, warm, boundary-erasing environment that was everything I could have hoped for and more.

The room was dimly lit, hazy (with dry ice fog, not smoke), and something lovely was playing through the gramophone. We slid onto a tucked-away couch and immediately struck up a conversation with the people sharing our nook. Why hello! What brings you here? And how do you get a drink …?

While we were still getting ourselves settled, the Master of Ceremonies took the stage to announce the Caravan Carousel, which required us to …. gasp … get up and start conversations with TOTAL STRANGERS. How un-English! And yet people went for it easily, and goodness only knows there were many, many people there that looked well worth talking to … what a nice excuse to go say hello! So off we went, canoodling and carousing, finding that a space that struggled to hold 50 people was far more full of life and interest than you would have ever expected just based on math.

Then it was time for performances. I saw several performers over the many evenings I attended (because oh yes I did go back), ranging from the debonair Dorian Black to the extremely tasty Mister Meredith and the lubricious “Mercury” (both of whom wound up wearing considerably less clothing than when they started) … not to mention Lili LaScala, Tricity Vogue, and whoever that half-naked dancing boy was they had in on closing night. VA VA VOOM. In between their numbers – danced on the small raised platforms in the middle of the room, but also done amongst us – indeed there was a real focus on audience interaction – the performers mingled and visited and spoke to us hoi polloi as if they were one of us. Oof!
But …. but maybe we were! Because one of the other fabulous features of the Caravan Society is that we, the audience, were asked to contribute to the evening’s entertainment with our various “party tricks” (as Mr Bogard called them when he circulated amongst us attempting to tease out a predilection for showmanship). And people did! I heard limericks and regular poetry, watched people do the splits and handstands, heard songs … what a wonderful bunch of talent we all had! We were encouraged to participate with the promise of a box of chocolates at the end, but could there have possibly have been a better reward that the approbation and admiration of our fellow society members? It didn’t seem possible. Even the bar staff and doormen were effusive with the few and the brave … who would not want that tiny moment of stardust? It made all of us glow a little brighter to have so much of it to share.

The evening ended each night I attended with a mock police raid – just whistles and the talent being hustled down the back stairs, while a voice overhead recited a plea to be released … and sent home with one of the “nice boys” in blue. In retrospect, The Caravan Society was a fun night with a clever concept that well repaid its trivial ticket price. And yet … I felt it was more than that. The tour had talked about clubs where clearly people were looking for more than just a place to drink; a place where they could be in their community and not continuing the pretense they used as a shelter in their everyday lives. A place where you could wear lipstick and nail polish and not be beat up or shunned … a place to drop the mask and maybe make a few new friends. I know that feeling; I spend my life pretending to be a nice married lady but I can’t be honest about my life or where my heart lies in my day to day life. Society wants you to keep a cork in it and not talk about feelings or not fitting in; we’re just supposed to suck it up. And let’s be honest, even while being gay (in the big cities at least) has become more acceptable, even within the community there is bashing on people for being too effeminate, inappropriately bisexual, or just generally not fitting tightly enough into some box that people find a comfortable way to categorize.

But once upon a time, it was all of us against all of the people that wanted us to stay in the closet, keep our mouths shut, and pretend like we fitted in. We had to support each other. We need to support each other still. And in this fantastic space of queerness, the Caravan Society of 2017 brought us back to our roots; one community, supporting each other in our diversity, uniqueness, imperfections, and mutual realization that We Just Aren’t Like Them. And for those few nights, a comet blazed across Soho, and all of us had a place where we could be glorious together and set the world on fire. We had the Caravan Society, and I can only hope that its light shines on into the rest of this year.

(Apologies to any performers I did not get to see or mention. Thank you to the wonderful reprobates who made this venue come to life. This was one of the best things I’ve ever done in the ten years I lived in London and I loved every moment of what you created.)

Review – Lizzie – Federicia Teater at Greenwich Theater

February 26, 2017 by

So logic dictates I should be writing about Imelda Staunton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

… but I have something more exciting to tell you about. See, you don’t need me to say yea or nay on a big show like that, you need me to tell you:


Oh, wait. You don’t know what I’m talking about. Okay, backstory: there’s a ROCK musical, a new one, happening in Greenwich right now. It’s based on the story of Lizzie Borden, the infamous 19th century American axe murderess (“gave her mother forty whacks,” etc). It is presented with four women who radiate rage, lust, fear, and a complete willingness to have fun with the metal genre all while singing like black canaries in a blood covered cage. I mean, how can you not feel the tension when you walk in and see the entire front row of the audience is wearing raincoats? When I arrived (late!), Lizzie (Bjorg Gamst) and her best friend Alice (Bleu Woodward) were rocking out in their leg-of-mutton sleeves in a way that was causing me so much cognitive dissonance I wanted to laugh and cheer at the same time. I don’t remember lesbian undertones to the original narrative, but WHY THE HELL NOT and hey, they actually did period appropriate dresses!

The whole thing from the start reminded me of an Emily Autumn show, only much more tongue in cheek and with some AWESOME FUCKING ROCK SONGS. I mean, the songs also really created character and moved the story forward, showing us the relationship between the Borden sisters (Eden Espinosa as older sibling Emma), the bad situation at the Borden household (a stepmother taking away the father’s attention and the girls’ place in his will – shades of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher!), and Lizzie’s slow evolution toward the solution to her very stifling life. I especially loved the tea and poison song in the first act, ending with some sort of concoction being poured into a dry-ice filled porcelain cup … rather a nice metaphor for Lizzie’s mental state.

The murder scene itself, while fairly damp, was in no way so horrific as to turn off any but the most lightweight of blood phones – pumpkins and hamburger in no way triggered me so I suspect it’s tolerable for most. And the second act, when the four actresses returned to face the consequences in corsets and fishnets, was such a blast that I wanted to jump up and cheer with them at the end. I haven’t had so much fun at a musical since Avenue Q.  Can this be the next big thing in musical theater? Because if this takes off, going out to see a show is going to be a hell of a lot more fun … and no more fighting to get the kids to come with! 
(This review is for a performance that took place Sunday, February 26th. It continues through March 12th. Do not miss it!)