Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

Review – the Uncommercial Traveller – Punchdrunk and Arcola Theaters

July 19, 2011

So. Punchdrunk and the Arcola hook up. Their baby is as follows: “Inspired by The Uncommercial Traveller, Charles Dickens account of his wanderings around London, Arcola Theatre and Punchdrunk Enrichment present an unexpected encounter in a surprising East London location.”

Inspired by wanderings? And there is “a headphone journey?” So a promenade, eh?

Well, once again I totally missed the boat in interpreting what kind of show I was going to see, as I was certain we were going to actually walk around the neighborhood (right next to the Geffrye as it turned out) and packed a raincoat and hat in preparation. I was excited about seeing the neighborhood through Dickens’ eyes! And then on the day of we had the kind of torrential downpour I associate more with Tropical Storm Insert Name here, and when I did finally make it to the location (late due to rain delays) I was THRILLED that it turned out all we were going to do was sit in a darkened room with a few actors and have a little chat.

The atmosphere was very cool in the space: a room lit by dim lamps, with 5 people in costume sat at tables. I saw a baldish man, a woman who looked like a fortune teller, and a lady well past her prime hiding behind a fan. We were ushered to our seats (in the People’s Soup Collective or something like this) by the proprietress, who evenly distributed us around the various actors. When she disappeared, the actors began to engage us. I only got my experience, which I will relate here: a woman in her mid fifties, wearing a tattered wedding dress (not very appropriate for any Victorian era but that’s community theater for you) and with a bouquet of dried roses, introduced herself (“Millie Perkins”) and told the three of us how she’d come to London. She was poor but honest, working as a seamstress in the soup shop and living downstairs.

At this point we were interrupted by the proprietress, who handed out cups with soup in them to all present. It was vegetable, and very nice too. Millie continued to tell us about her boyfriend, Robert, and how he was going to be married to her tomorrow “but ‘e ‘asn’t been seen in six weeks.” I foresaw difficulties ahead for Millie’s romantic life. Millie, meanwhile, asked us about our sweethearts and doled out advice on how to catch and keep a man.

Then the lights went dark briefly and, when they rose, the actors one by one took groups of people through the building and downstairs. The interior was all very atmospheric: I wondered if Victorian restaurants (for the poor) were always poorly lit, or if they would have had big windows. Meanwhile, the downstairs was split up by hanging curtains, very much reminding me of what I’d read about housing conditions in the London slums in the late Victorian era. We were taken into Millie’s room and sat on her bed while she went through her things. At one point a piercing scream rent the air – “Oh, ignore that woman, she does it all the time” – and then, to no suprise, we had the denouement that Robert would not be attending the wedding via a little note Millie gave to me to read. She also screamed, then told us to leave her alone. We exited via a different back door, going past a man who sat sharpening knives menacingly.

All told I actually really enjoyed my little adventure despite it being not what I expected. Even though Millie’s story was slim, the atmosphere was great, the price was right (£6), and at 20 minutes it was like a little appetizer that whet the appetite rather than outstaying its welcome. My companion, Fausterella, also enjoyed it, and like me enjoyed catching up with other people about what they had seen (sadly neither of us got the Sweeney Todd style butcher man). However, Gareth James, who went on the same day, felt quite differently about it all. I don’t feel ultimately like I got much Dickens out of it, but I am still intrigued by the walk described on the Arcola’s website and will probably do it in my free time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, July 17th, 2011. This was the last day of this show.)

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Review – A Christmas Carol – Southwark Playhouse

December 13, 2009

Saturday afternoon, J and I headed to Southwark to see a fairly early performance – actually, a matinee, but I mean “early in the run” – of Southwark Playhouse‘s promenade version of “A Christmas Carol.” The ads warned of extreme cold as we walked through the tunnels under London bridge – but I had a far greater fear, of extreme naff as we were, say, paraded past a series of stale vignettes taken from the book, all marred by an excess of enthusiasm and lack of talent from the locally-recruited cast.

I am pleased to say on all accounts my fears were unwarranted. This was a very good show, both as an example of the promenade form and an incarnation of the classic tale, and was blessed by original staging and an utterly brilliant Scrooge. Before I finish my ramblings, let me encourage you to buy tickets now if you are a Christmas Carol fan, as it’s already selling out, the audience size (80) is about half the normal for this venue, and it’s well worth seeing. Word is going to get out fast and I’d hate to think that in the time it took you to read this you missed out on your chance to get tickets.

The event itself starts in the bar, where a nice Victorian three-piece band is making enough merry that I was sorry I hadn’t got there earlier. (We return to the bar during the interval; order your mulled wine in advance.) Various costumed people wander through the crowd wishing us all a happy Christmas; it actually made for a very nice transition into the show, and was a really enjoyable and atmospheric way to pass the time before it started.

We were then herded into the usual auditorium, which was set up with a series of writing desks, to which several audience members were sent to scratch out figures for Ebenezer Scrooge (David Fielder). He blew in and settled in the middle, while a few appropriately clad actors (and one Bob Cratchit, played by Steve Hansell) filled out the rest of the chairs. We audience recruits were actually quite involved with the scene, not just scraping our quills across the ledgers but also whispering (“Put some more coal in the fire!”) to each other, driving the story along. Meanwhile the real actors added vocal atmosphere, going “Tick! Tick! Tick!” as if they were the clock counting down the time to Christmas eve, and filling in other background noises in a unique way that helped us get into the “theater”/”something unusual is going to happen here” mindset.

(The sound design was notably good; I was entranced by the bird song that accompanied the arrival of The Ghost of Christmas Past and found the echoing voices of the various characters added a nice otherworldliness to the goings-on. The singing was also tuneful and appropriate.)

Scrooge’s office was transformed into his home, and then, well, we get Marley (Thomas Padden, heavily chained), and of course the Ghost of Christmas Past (a charming and joyous woman dressed in white, garlanded, and carrying a lightbulb – not quite a torch but, hey, fire regulations), who causes the room to open up and let us move, with the story, into the mysterious depths behind the theater. This was where (to start) Scrooge’s childhood was hidden – simply expressed by a boy in front of a blackboard. The set was sparse yet quite appropriate.

The rest of the show was, well, the story itself, with an admirable adherence to the text – yes, sure, there were some small changes, but Dickens doesn’t need a lot of ornamentation to work. And as the audience we get to dance with the Fezziwigs, eat with the Cratchitts, and … in a spooky scene … walk amongst the gravestones with Ebenezer and the creepy Ghost of Christmas Future. We weren’t watching scenes take place so much as experiencing them, and I found that it really worked. Much of the credit must be given to David Fielder, for I can hardly think of an actor that has more perfectly captured Scrooge’s journey. And we are there right beside him for much of it – he’s incapable of hiding from the audience at any point, as he is on stage for all of it except the interval. What a tour de force! I really bought his experience, from the arrogance of the beginning to the soft joy he felt seeing his happy past to his acceptance and desire to change at the end. While I’ve seen many actors play this role, Fielder seemed formed of the very ink of Dicken’s pen, and I expect all future versions I see will be held up against his standard. Also notable was Trevor Michael Georges as the Ghost of Christmas Present, which had every bit of the booming jollility I expect of this character – and handed out candy to the audience.

Athough there were a few hiccups with what I expect were less experienced actors (credited as the “community cast”), still, this is a show well worth seeing – and to my surprise, it wasn’t nearly as cold in the vaults as I would have expected it to be. Still, wear comfortable shoes, and don’t bother checking your coat … and do get out and see this show.

(This show is for a matinee performance that took place on Saturday, December 12th, 2009. The show runs through January 9th. It’s already sold out through the 28th, so I advise booking ASAP.)

Review – Phil Willmott’s musical “A Christmas Carol” – King’s Head Theatre

December 17, 2008

PLEASED TO SAY THIS REVIEW IS GENERATING PERSONAL ATTACKS ON ME! And thanks for visiting the review of last year’s production of A Christmas Carol. Here’s what I had to say in 2008:

Friday night I went to the official opening of the musical “Christmas Carol” that’s taking place through January 4th at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington. A friend was involved in it and thus I had a bit more awareness than usual about this show – I’d had a peek at the script a few weeks earlier and was almost talked out of going by the use of “In The Hall of the Mountain King” as a sung bit. Still, I had a friend visiting me that night, and she was up for seeing the show with me (and supporting said mutual friend), so off we went.

I’d never seen a show in a pub before, even though I know it’s a fairly common thing in London. The theater, all the way behind the bar (on the main floor), was really small (eighty or so seats) with rather low ceilings. It was also completely jammed with performers – at least twenty were on the stage, in the aisles, or standing off to the sides, chatting and playing musical instruments. It was amazing how full of humanity the little theater was. Still, sightlines in the middle section were good, and I figured with my glass of mulled wine I was sure to be good through an hour and a half no matter what they threw at me.

The trope for this show is that Charles Dickens is trying to sell his publisher on this new book idea of his that he thinks will be incredibly popular (and make money), and he starts telling him the story that is “A Christmas Carol” in a pub in Victorian England, with the idea that if he can capture this audience, his story will surely sell well. This is all good and fine, except … well, I don’t give a rat’s ass about Charles Dickens as a person. Furthermore, I’d just been to the Dickens museum, and the false historical references (his previous novels being a failure and him being any way in financial straights when he wrote “A Christmas Carol”) really irritated me. Please! He was an established, well-to-do writer when he cranked out “Christmas Carol!” My friend was also going nuts because the costumes were a complete hodge-podge of pseudo-Victoriana (and she used to be a costume designer – how was I to know?). The bigger problem for me was that this story doesn’t NEED a framing device – it’s fine all on its own – and the time spent with Dickens took away from the story itself. (Note: Charlie Anson was totally hot, but that’s not the point. If I wanted to ogle him, I’d see him in … hmm … Equus … well, okay, a different show. What plays feature male actors taking it all off besides Equus? I must not be getting out enough to not be able to answer that question quickly. Anyway …)

Historical accuracy having been set aside, would the story at least be followed somewhat faithfully? Well … in my mind, no. I’ve seen a version of “A Christmas Carol” pretty much annually since I saw the Annex Theater version in Seattle some years ago (the one with the positively evil Tiny Tim), and the story isn’t as flexible as this production imagined it might be. To start, Scrooge (a delightfully curmudgeonly Mark Starr) gives no speech about the poor needing to make more of an effort to die, thus “decreasing the surplus population” – a sentiment which I’ve heard expressed nearly verbatim by a friend of mine this very year and one which I think bears regular repeating and thinking about. (It’s ludicrous to say that poor people simply shouldn’t exist and thus aren’t our concern.) Yet despite this, Cratchit (a good looking James Hayward) was out of the house and off for Christmas eve, leaving Scrooge to his lonely apartment, in about five minutes flat.

This gave us plenty of time to have fun with the haunting of Scrooge, but I found the spooky masked singing spooks just … a little too heavy handed, to be honest. This is actually a spooky and fun scene in the book, but I found its subtlety, and Marley’s message, got lost along the way.

And then the ghost of Christmas Past came along … and she was a girl, in a white dress, basically looking to me like a tarted up Miss Havisham. Where were my candles? When in the world did it get decided that she was “Cinderella, that you left behind when you left behind your books” (not a quote)? What a bunch of claptrap! Christmas Past as Cinderella! Yeah, sure, it was cool when they were “flown” over London (really awesome special effect involving not too much effort), but … CINDERELLA. You might as well have made … Tiny Tim the Ghost of Christmas Future. Oh wait, they DID! Forget the traditional image, this show came up with something so entirely ludicrous I found myself sighing and wishing for the finer points of the Stone Soup Theater’s Black Light Christmas Carol of some years past.

Good points: the singing of the cast was really enjoyable, Scrooge’s old girlfriend Belle (Poppy Roe) was really excellent in her scene (actually I enjoyed the whole Fezziwig scene rather a lot, though I thought the “On the First Day of Christmas” at the end was clunky), the tech crew/director did a great job handling some really challenging stuff in a tiny space (I liked the puppetry, and the lighthouse in the “Christmas by the Sea” scene was a treat), and the acting was far better than I would have expected from a space like this.

Overall this wasn’t a horrible show, but … I just think this script isn’t worthy of being produced. It’s not a bad Christmas Carol, and the price is low, so if you’re less particular about things like historical accuracy and fidelity to the text, you may enjoy it. Me, well, I can’t help but think fondly of the amazing South African “Christmas Carol” I saw last year, that captured all of the message of the story and fully bent and played with the structure while still feeling one hundred percent right. Oh well.

(This review is for a performance on Friday, December 12, 2008.)

Review – Dickens Unplugged – The Comedy Theatre

June 27, 2008

Choosing theater as a pick-me-up may seem a little odd to some, but I find that a really good show will really raise my mood. With that thought in mind, I invited a friend who’s a big Dickens fan to accompany me and my husband to see Dickens Unplugged at the Comedy Theatre last night. My uncle had seen it two weeks back and given it a rousing review, so I had high hopes that I had a good evening ahead of us. To improve the matter, Last Minute has been consistently flogging tickets at £10 a pop (and the Ambassadors themselves are doing a two-fer), so the risk level was very low.

I personally have a bit of a mixed history with Mr. Dickens. I was forced to read A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver, and Great Expectations while I was in high school, and I didn’t like any of them. Now, mind you, being able to refer to these books has been good for me in terms of my ability to get western culture (most recently while I was reading the Jasper Fforde “Thursday Next” mysteries, in which Miss Havisham plays a very important role), but I just found the stories themselves mawkish and trying to finish them was like a death march through fields covered in treacle. Bah. That said, I am very much pro-Dickens insofar as he was a real mover for improving the lot of the poor in Victorian times, and I am a big fan of A Christmas Carol, so I figured a night watching people re-enact scenes from his books in a comic matter would be pleasant enough.

I was not, however, expecting the show to be so musical. About half of it is sung, and, you know what? It’s good. I liked the songs and found myself humming the opening tune after the show was over (which did not happen at Marguerite). The performers were very good – all five of them played something, sometimes three guitars, sometimes an upright bass, once two trumpets (muffled), all acoustic and therefore “unplugged” (how I missed the reference I do not know) – other than one hysterical visit from an electric guitar. The men sang in fine harmony, the lyrics were clear and relevant and very often funny – it was great! And for me, it was nice to see Americans on stage doing comedy in an American style, even though it was a bit odd to hear Mr. D himself talking like a Californian.

In fact, this whole evening was a really good time. The actors interwove bits of Charles Dickens’ life with the stories he was writing, making for an interesting narrative with lots of costume changes as they each wound up playing as many as three or four characters in the course of a given story. They were great comedians and completely had my attention, especially during what I fear was an unscripted bit when Charles Dickens’ wife’s skirts started slipping off. (Ah, improv!) The highlight of the night was either the brilliant bit of stagework when they figured how to have the recently beheaded Sydney Carton come back to finish the last line of the song he was singing or the Tiny Tim rock show at the very end of A Christmas Carol.

I was cheered to see how animated and happy the audience was as we left the theater – people had really had a good time! Sadly, though, this show appears to be closing this weekend, so if you want to see it, you’d better get your tickets bought ASAP. I recommend it highly as a fine value for your theatrical dollar – er, pound.

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, June 26th.)