Posts Tagged ‘Bertie Carvel’

Mini-review – The Hairy Ape – Old Vic Theater

November 10, 2015

Over the last few years, I’ve really warmed up to the work of Eugene O’Neill. There have been hits and misses, but the combined impact of Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah! Wilderness can hardly be put into words. His ability to create characters that burn into your memory as icons of pure being … it’s like they walked from the world of Plato’s Ideals into our own, casting their shadows across the entire planet of twentieth century theater.

And then, well, he’s also got what I’d consider lesser works: bombastic, lecturing, obsessed with structure and politics over character and plot. Even knowing this, I queued up for The Old Vic’s production of The Hairy Ape, which seemed, by all indicators, early enough in his career to be shackled with cement-like boots of drivel (and was promoted as being from his socialist era – how dull!). But at 90 minutes and with Bertie Carvel, well, I asked myself, how bad could it be?

This, obviously, was a question asked by many others, as I was able to get half priced second row seats on the day and much of the upper reaches of the theater was echoingly empty. The script seemed both stylized and preachy – a bit much of a combo – and the characters seemed to be drawn from a random sack of easy stereotypes (the brutal laborer – Bertie Carvel, the spoiled heiress – Rosie Sheehy, the cowardly socialist, the calculating … frankly, the only character that showed any freedom was the ape in the zoo). As Rosie Sheehy pronounced her character’s easy, snobby assessments of the struggling workers she mocked – and as these characters showed themselves to be brutal, lazy, and ignorant – I felt that O’Neill himself was struggling to make a play that was not cartoonish. He seemed to have neither sympathy for nor insight into any of the people he was attempting to create on stage, and the effect was coming off rather like a silent movie, with Snidely Whiplash expected any moment.

And yet … somehow the actor’s heightened performances started working with the overblown dialogue, and, combined with the exaggeration of the set (so much acid yellow!) and movement, we started moving into a different realm … where the unreality became surreality, and Yank’s journey from the pits of the ship to the heights of New York society started to cohere. It was meant to be extreme, it was meant to be over the top, and, well, even though the dialogue was crap if you were going for naturalism, the second you made it into Expressionism it started to work.

And this was a ride I was willing to go along for. I cast aside my need for believable characters and set down to watch a morality tale set in 1920s New York – and tremendously enjoyed myself. I loved the over the top set pieces, I loved the ridiculousness, I bought into Carvel’s exaggerations of his horribly over the top man of muscles. And then, suddenly, it was over – much in the way you might have predicted it ending from about ten minutes in – and I found, even though this play would have been intolerable on paper, somehow Richard Jones had made the damn thing work on stage. Good on you, I say, and don’t miss it – the chances you’ll ever see such an enjoyable production of this show at any point in the rest of your life is slim.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, November 4th, 2015. It continues through November 21st.)

Review – Matilda the Musical – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Cambridge Theatre

November 24, 2011

Last winter, the raves in the Twittersphere were unanimous: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s musical version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda was a real winner. “That’s great,” I thought, “it’s always good for a new musical to be birthed and loved.” Stratford isn’t normally an affordable venue for me to visit (only really being suited to weekend matinees as the distance otherwise requires a hotel), but it hardly mattered because by the time I had heard about it, it was already sold out.

It was thus a great pleasure when I heard that Matilda was coming to London. I am naturally suspicious of musicals with lots of children in them, but since it was based on a story by Roald Dahl, I figured the sugar level was bound to be low while the darkness would be high. I had some luck with a preview ticket offer – figuring it had already had a solid run in Stratford, in my mind the early London shows would still be high quality. As it turned out, I wound up attending on press night, and with a £40 balcony ticket (at my utter top range unless it’s a birthday present) I was feeling quite suspicious about getting value on the money despite the build up.

Regular readers will know that I like to go to shows without having plot details revealed to me in advance, but be ready to be shocked: unlike most “normal” people, I have never read Matilda. So I had no idea what it was about, other than it was about a little girl and a mean teacher. My ignorance is due, I think, to growing up in America: while I had James and the Giant Peach read to me, saw Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, I wasn’t aware there were more Roald Dahl books out there. (Mind, this was about 1976 so there were quite a few less Dahl books at the time.) I had NO IDEA what was going to happen, especially since, with what I knew of Dahl, I igured a traditional happy ending was NOT necessarily in the cards. In fact, in the P.E. scene, when the stage suddenly went all red, I had a bit of a freak out thinking OH MY GOD IT’S GOING TO GO ALL CARRIE ON US and was expecting blood to be splashed everywhere (a thought NOT helped by my friend’s comment about Matilda’s “powers” a few minutes before). COMICALLY KILLER LITTLE GIRL the headlines read selling the show to people who would “get” it, while I sat in a corner, wrapped in a blanket, trying to recover from the terror. Thankfully, this did NOT happen. Rewind to earlier in the evening …

Tickets torn, I walked into a newly bejewelled Cambridge Theater, clutching a bag of chocolates and a rubber newt, and sat down to take in the miracle of the exposed set – all giant letters on wooden blocks, some spelling words, many lit with black lights. It was hard to imagine such a transformation since Chicago left, but it had become quite the little jewelbox. (And yes, there were acres of children in the audience, but, as I expected, they were generally well behaved, even though the show’s running time of 2:45 might have been a bit much for the under 10 set.) It was a good start, really.

Then a table began creeping forward under finger power, the orchestra kicked off, and BANG we were having a show! The kids started out bratty as hell (doing a little number about how each of them was special), a good contrast for introducing Matilda (Cleo Demetriou the night I went), a charming little girl with the trashiest, most ignorant parents (with the most deliciously hideous wardrobe) ever, who are disappointed that she wastes her time doing things like “reading” and “telling stories” and “not being a boy.” Thankfully, as a Dahl heroine, Matilda’s not obliged to be passive and pathetic, but instead shows spunk and rebelliousness. This does NOT go over well at school, where blind obedience is the rule per Headmistress (= principal for fellow Americans) Trunchbull (Bertie Carvel, terrifying and hysterical in a “if only Panto dames were always this awesome” style).

Things I didn’t expect of this story narrative-wise: Matilda is liked by the other kids despite being smart; there is a teacher who positively treasures her (Miss Honey, Lauren Ward); and there is a major subplot involving Matilda telling a story to her librarian friend, Mrs. Phelps (Melanie La Barrie). Matilda’s act of imagination is illustrated ingeniously for the stage, with devices ranging from puppets to amazingly costumed actors to an animated movie that reminded me of the Cray brothers. The creative team could have done so much less but instead they took the opportunity to create real theatrical magic – thanks for that, guys.

While I was terrified that the show was going to be cutesy, sappy, and either candied up or dulled down for the expected (and arrived) young audience, in fact, there was none of that: the song lyrics were thoughtful, the movement and dance was original (and hysterical at time); there was appropriate sexuality for the adults (well, Rudolpho, anyway); the humor was all over the place. Best of all, the darkness I expect and love from Dahl appeared in now way to have been sanitized out. People, even adults and parents, are cruel and hurtful and mean; they don’t have to do it because they’re waiting for something magical to happen that takes their problem away but just because they enjoy power and control; children (and adults) suffer from their inability to have the same power; the world is, really, not concerned with fairness.

Matilda, if it has a lesson, is that you don’t need to take life’s unfairness sitting down; that, even though standing against something that is blatantly not right does not mean you can change the outcome, it will, if nothing else, ensure that you did better than go through life as a victim. It’s hard not to enjoy this show for all of its energy, great design work, and high-caliber acting; but ultimately, the reason to see it again (which I will) is because it makes you feel good, even in a world that has so many wrongs in it. Yeah, my tickets were out of budget for me; but for once, I felt like I had really got my money’s worth. I may not have come out singing the songs (in fact I frequently could not hear the lyrics), but I did feel I’d seen a really great show.

(This review is for the press performance that took place on Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011. It is booking through September 9, 2012. My advice if you want any kind of discount is to go with a large group. Be advised this show does a Sunday matinee but is dark on Monday.)