Posts Tagged ‘Clive Rowe’

Review – Mother Goose – Hackney Empire

December 23, 2014

After eleven months of heavy duty theater watching, I approached the Christmas season somewhat fearfully. I had agreed to review five shows in two weeks; on top of the shows I said I’d see with friends, I was looking at 14 shows in 12 days: six of them pantos. But you know what? It was like TWO WEEKS OF CHOCOLATE after a year of eating health food. December has been MY CHRISTMAS TREAT TO ME. Sure, no normal person would want to see three pantos a week (or more) for the entire month of December, but I LOVED IT!

And what panto did I want to see at the end of the second week? Hackney Empire! Because the whole point of the Christmas season panto-ganza is that I HEART PANTO and I wanted to see the BEST PANTO IN LONDON and after seeing five other pantos I was warmed up to it! I had had five appetizers and I was was ready for the main course (and had paid appropriately and invited friends)! And I was even more ready for it because Clive Rowe had been taking a star turn at the National last year and even though Suzie McKenna’s writing is good, having a dame like Clive really changes the dynamic of a panto. So Friday night and bring on Mother Goose!

Storywise, this Mother Goose is about the dangers of greed. At the beginning, Mother Goose is in danger of losing her house because she can’t pay the rent; but when she gets a goose that lays golden eggs (a goose that apparently has no idea what her new owner had been doing with her previous geese), her sudden wealth makes her avaricious. Of course, who doesn’t want to her Clive singing “Goldfinger” and walking around in glamorous gold ball gowns, but Ms Goose wants to be young and beautiful as well and is seduced by the evil fairy into taking a bath in a supposed “fountain of youth” … all in a plot to steal the goose.

Plot, however, is not the reason I go to panto. I go because I love to laugh. And with a master performer like Clive Rowe, this is pretty much guaranteed. He teases the audience mercilessly, ad lib on stage until the other performers forget their lines, and manages to make a hat constructed of goose eggs seem like a perfectly normal thing to wear. Of course, what we also get are scripted jokes (bad puns for the kids, innuendo and politics for the adults), fun dance numbers (Hackney always seems to slip in some tap dancing and I, for one, wholly approve) and the truly fantastic voices of all of the members of the cast. Good witch Sharon D Clarke could be doing concerts and instead we get the pleasure of listening to her serenade us while wearing wings. The whole things comes together so perfectly that, once again, I had tears rolling down my face because I was having such a good time. What ever have we done to deserve a panto as good as Hackney puts on every year? I think I’m just going to have to leaves some extra cookies out for Santa on Christmas eve, because he gave me everything I could have asked for with this one.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 12, 2014. It continues through January 4th.)


Review – The Light Princess – National Theater (or “National Theatre” for some)

October 14, 2013

Although I finished my review of Ghosts first, there’s no doubt in my mind that The Light Princess is the bigger theatrical event – any new musical would be, but this one has the advantage (over Bare, for example) of having Tori Amos write the music and, well, the National Theater to back it. But it really wasn’t on my radar because, well, Tori Amos, and, er, the National Theater – I figured it would be lifeless, pretentious, tedious, and full of boring music.

But, well, I did my usual thing of asking my theater loving friends, “What’s really good right now?” and got an earful about this show from Ought To Be Clowns. He RAVED about it, said he’d seen it several times already, and that if I liked Sondheim, there was a good chance I’d appreciate its non-tune oriented musicality. I was pretty impressed, and with a bit of luck on my side managed to get some 12 quid tickets for opening night. (They were the side seats in the very back of the theater but when I picked them up, they’d been magically upgraded to row F circle. Rah!)

A bit of plot as this is a new play: there is a princess, Althea (Rosalie Craig), whose mother died when she was young. All of the kingdom was plunged into mourning; Althea, for some reason, “rose above it all” quite literally, not only not crying, but literally losing her groundedness, becoming a floating (“light”) princess. Her father, King Darius (Clive Rowe), has her confined to a tower and focuses on her brother as his heir. Meanwhile, in a neighboring kingdom, Prince Digby’s mother also dies … but under mysterious circumstances (as she criticized the king). No one is allowed to mourn her; he becomes the solemn prince (Nick Hendrix), known for never smiling: ideal, as he is heir and his father wants him to be a heartless killing machine, with a life aim of taking over Althea’s gold-rich (but water-poor) kingdom. It seems inevitable that they should meet ….

For a good long time at the start of The Light Princess (well, once the animated background movie was over), I was utterly absorbed in how Althea was made to float. Although at times it was via a harness, in fact, most of the time she was being moved by people, turned and supported (sometimes with their feet!) as if she were a bunraku puppet. Craig appeared to be entirely unaware of the hands and bodies manipulating her; she simply seemed buoyant. While I don’t want to say it was distracting – it was actually fairly invisible IF YOU STOPPED STARING AT IT – it was still such an unusual effect that I missed most of what she was saying (singing, actually, as there was little straight dialog) for at least half an hour.

Crisis time comes, inevitably (as princes and princesses from differing kingdoms must meet in any self-respecting fairy tale), as Althea runs away from her duty to her kingdom and Digby runs toward his (as leader of his kingdom’s army). They both meet in the great wilderness that divides their kingdoms, in a beautiful, magical lake.

Um. I have to stop here, because even before we had got to the lake, my theatrical suspension of disbelief had kicked in and I was just buying everything I saw. King Darius’s Amazonian major general in her amazing gold armor; the falcon that was Digby’s only friend (and the lady falconer with her red glove); a flying princess who could make friends with a beautiful blue bird (surely actually a hyacinth macaw!); Digby and Althea falling in love. I was completely ready for the unbounded amazingness that was the lake: cheesy simple effects with black lights and puppets making fish jump and water lilies bloom and the whole thing feel almost like a stop-motion animation come to life. And, yes, they were still mostly just singing. What could be more appropriate in a world so full of magic?

In retrospect, I had some quibbles: the music felt a bit samey-samey and wasn’t hitting a lot of different emotions; the lyrics, similarly, struggled to get beyond childishness and were crippled by repetition and a lack of imagination (the word H2O shouldn’t really be sung more than once in an entire evening). But otherwise I felt like I was seeing the grand flowering of British theatrical creativity taking place on stage in front of me, the culmination of fantastic set design, costuming, acting and singing talent (that could perform, night after night, while being tossed around like a football!), and a creative approach to movement (animation! puppets! acrobats!) that all blended together to create something I simply cannot believe I got to see in a space as intimate as the Lyttleton. And, man, I got to hear Clive Rowe really sing out, and I got to hear people sing about things I thought mattered – like being accepted for who you are, like not turning your back on things that make you uncomfortable – and, um, all that for twelve pounds? Wow.

The Light Princess is the kind of thing that makes me feel lucky that I live in London. I don’t know if I’ll be able to go again, but I feel sure lots of other people will, and will love it. And you, if you’re thinking about it, I advise you to not hesitate: this is going to be a sell-out.

(This review is for the opening night performance that took place on October 9, 2013. It is booking through January 9th, 2014.)

Mini-review – Kiss Me Kate – Old Vic (transfer from Chichester)

December 14, 2012

There’s nothing like the feeling of going to see a musical by one of the best composers EVER for the VERY FIRST TIME and knowing NOTHING about it but excitedly anticipating how very WONDERFUL it will be! All of those instant classic songs waiting to become earworms! Those characters you can’t forget! The dancing! The magic!

And then, I’m afraid, there was my trip to Kiss Me Kate at the Old Vic. I admit, my primary reason for going was actually seeing Clive Rowe – my number one theatrical pal was in town and we were both hoping to catch Clive on stage (since he was taking a break from dame-ing at the Hackney Empire). Oddly, my friend and I have exactly opposite tastes when it comes to Cole Porter, as I love him, while Jonathan … well, he likes Rent.

But … but … I walked out of this show scratching my head. What was really so great about the songs at all? Now, both “Too Hot” and its associated dance number were fabulous, and “Always True to You in My Fashion” was classic bad girl material, but … I love Porter for his fantastically witty lyrics and rhyme schemes, which seemed generally NOT PRESENT. Did he just run out of creative juice between 1934 and 1948? Who in the world pronounces “Bianca” the way he suggests?

And, I hate to say it, but … the show dragged. I got bored. I’d be briefly engaged again, and there’d be some kind of uninspiring dialogue. Then FOOF there’d be some great stagecraft (I loved the sets and the costumes ALERT DAMNING WITH FAINT PRAISE) but AGH OH NO it’s Holly Dale Spencer overacting Lois again MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP!

Now, Hannah Waddington was lovely and had a great voice (and looked fantastic) and there was some (but not enough) chemistry with her and Alex Bourne but Clive was woefully underused, and it’s wrong, wrong I tell you, to see a musical of this position in the canon and walk out thinking, “I’m so glad I only paid £16 to see that.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 10th, 2012. It continues through March 2nd.)

Mini-review – Ladykillers – Gielgud Theater

April 2, 2012

Given this play opened months and months ago, it’s rather sad that it’s taken me so long to get to see it. However, it’s been a budget conscious time for me and I was waiting for discounted tickets to come up. Sadly, when they appeared, it was around the same time as the closing date was announced (April 14th) – but at least I knew there was no more time for fooling around, especially with LastMinute running a “dinner and show” deal for 25 quid. And now it’s running for just a few more days (until April 14th) and all shows are 19.50 each (discount at checkout) ….

So what I need to say is this is a FUN show. It’s not really deep and the performances aren’t about giving you insight into the human soul. It’s overacted a bit but with everyone pitching in to be just a little too much at the same time it adds up to a very positive effect in that it’s meant to make you laugh. And it did! I liked the silly gawping, I liked the cute doddering little old lady, I liked the constant dangling muffler around the male lead’s neck that seemed to be a long set up for punchline that did eventually arrive. In fact, much of the show seemed to be setting us up for jokes that would show up later (except for the strange presence of men in drag during the old ladies’ classical music concert).

Two things made this show extra outstanding for me. One was the set, which unfolded like a Chinese puzzle and had a final configuration that completely baffled me – where had they been hiding it all this time? The second was the wonderful performance of Clive Rowe, who, as the “dumb” one of the gang, was given a star turn in his final scene that included a show-stopping performance of “Silver Hair Among the Gold” (with a knife in his head) that really let him show off his pipes. I won’t say that it alone was worth the price of the ticket but it was really a high point for me. And at the end of the night, with the group of eight I’d brought with me, I didn’t need to give a single word of apology – we had all had a lovely evening.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 19th, 2012. I had never seen the movie upon which this show was based and I still had a good time. Not for those who want to leave the theater with further insight into the human condition.)

December theater mini-reviews – Donmar “Richard II” and Hackney Empire “Cinderella”

December 24, 2011

Santa is leaving nothing for me in my stocking because I’ve been neglecting my theater blog. There’s been so much to see, and I’ve traveled so much (with indulgent trips to Birmingham for “The Nutcracker” and Leeds for “Beauty and the Beast”) that actually getting words on paper (or whatever I’m doing right now) has not been happening. So there’s probably 8 shows I’ve seen this much that I’ve neglected to write up. However, I’m going to try to get reviews up for a few of them that are still open: just be advised I’m doing this in an airport with limited internet access and no programs to reference for actors’ names.

First, the Hackney Empire’s “Cinderella.” Hackney has been the gold standard for pantos for me: aimed at the kids, affordable for families, with an excellent atmosphere that helps me be a kid, too. But they’ve shot over the top with the incredible skills of their dame, Clive Rowe, and the clever songwriting skills and script (full of political jokes and local references) that have made every dusty old fairytale fresh and fun.

I had my worries about “Cinderella” as Clive was taking the year off. What would we do without his wisecracks, amazing improv talents, and fabulous voice? According to a friend, Cinderella doesn’t actually need a dame as the mom is played by a woman, while it’s the stepsisters who do the drag duties. I’m pleased to say that the voices were on and the stepmom was a delicious villain, but a lot of the snap had gone. The improv (from the sisters) was soft (they apologized for going off script, whereas I thought they should have revelled in it!), the references to Hackney were few, and the only real political jokes I heard were references to phone hacking and the difficulty of getting Olympics tickets. Sure, it was good, but I just couldn’t get my enthusiasm up to the wild levels of the past even with front row tickets. Apparently “Aladdin” at the Lyric Hammersmith is the one to beat, but I won’t get to see it. That said, this is still a good show and lacking in the nauseating commerciality I’d seen at some more upscale venues, so I can recomend it as a family afternoon or evening out … and they do need our support. *sigh* PLEASE CAN WE HAVE CLIVE BACK NEXT YEAR? (This show was seen on Wednesday, December 15th, 2011.)

Next up is Richard II at the Donmar Warehouse. Wonderfully, this was a show I didn’t know at all, so I had NO idea how it was going to end: history plays, to what extent are they comedies and to what extent tragedies? It was a typical Donmar set (dark floor, balcony above) but with bonus incense filling the room and a lovely churchy-gold-wood thing going on that helped illustrate Richard’s point about the divinity of kinghood. I thought this was a good insight into the medieval soul as well as some of the core issues that have continued to dog English politics – the peasants will love you as long as you kiss their ass and don’t take too much from their purses. That said, Richard II himself was a queer bird and seemed just bizarrely affected in a way that was possibly meant to indicate impending madness but that came off as “I’ve just come out of acting school and this is the “method” I’ve chosen for this role, you will of course go with it.” I found it off-putting, but with a strong cast, and, hey, Shakespeare, plus ten quid tickets, it was certainly worth my time. Not worth standing the whole evening, mind you, but a great way to knock out a history. Someday perhaps Propeller will do it and then I’ll see what they can really achieve with this script. (This show was seen on Wednesday, December 12th, 2011).

Both of these shows are certainly worth a gander though neither blew my socks off – I’ve really only been reviewing shows I have a lot to say about. Anyway, call ’em serviceable. (Richard II continues at the Donmar through February 4th, 2012; Cinderella through January 8th, 2012.)

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk – Hackney Empire 2010 panto

November 29, 2010

Early this fall my friend Exedore (that’s his twitter handle, anyway) gave me a heart attack when he told me, in short, Christmas had been cancelled this year. That’s right, Clive Rowe was NOT gonig to be in the Hackney Empire panto – instead, he was going to be in The Three Musketeers. Massive OH NOES! My one major holiday tradition (since I moved to England) dashed! I felt like I should go, just to show my support of the struggling Hackney, but Clive is my Dream Dame … in my eyes, There Is Nothing Like a Clive; in his absence, so much panto is just hackneyed. But three weeks ago I got the good news: Clive was in, and Christmas was on! I signed up quickly for opening night tickets and eagerly awaited the show.

The story of Jack and the Beanstalk is … well, kind of different from the one I remember. As in many pantos, this one has a much bigger role for Jack’s mother, and (unsurprisingly) rather a long turn on stage for the cow. In addition, we get Jack’s best friends, Molly and Billy; two evil henchmen (the Beans, who fart and eat boogers and are generally revolting even without their green spotlight); and the most mysterious Mr. Snowmaaaaan, who appeared to be a Jamaican guy in a white afro wig and an equally terrifying fake fur coat. I was, again, pretty amazed at the complete lack of congruency with my expectations of the story, which was more about magic beans and giant’s gold and not a lot about fairies or who was in love with Jack.

Still, part of the fun for me is settling down into the familiar ride, with Susie McKenna tossing in topical jokes (the “demolition” government), reworkings of extremely familiar songs (“Easy Money” and even a song from Royal Wedding), and some fun dance numbers (I was shocked to see Mrs. Bean setting the floor on fire). Jack was a real star, both a talented dancer and a fine singer, though I was surpised somewhat that it was actually a guy in the role – still, I in no way felt short changed. The Billy/Molly bit was all rather long, though, and I found myself hoping that in later editions, Billy’s solo song might get cut – the loser male anti-hero in so many pantos (a la Buttons) isn’t my favorite element, and while he and Molly were big hams, they just didn’t enthuse me.

Clive, of course, was fantastic. His voice was as rich as ever, and his skill at ad-libbing got good use when Mr. Bean’s wig came off with his hat during the (inevitable) cream pie scene. Unfortunately, his Dame costumes weren’t as brilliant as in years past, even though they changed with every scene – there was just a certain simplicity and lack of whimsical detail that spoke of, I’m pretty sure, budget cuts. Still, the golden egg laying bird was better outfitted than anyone I saw at Wimbledon last year, and how often do you get to see a chicken tap dance?

Overall the second act, with its big musical numbers, was much more energetic than the first, but I enjoyed the entire evening. This wasn’t the best show I’ve seen them do, but I feel confident that with its street smarts, top-notch performers and well-written songs, once more Hackney will be the panto for the others to beat.

(This review is for the 7 PM performance on Saturday, Novemer 27th, 2010. The show continues through January 9th, 2011. Running time is approximately 2 1/2 hours based on my experience.)

Review – Aladdin – Hackney Empire (2009)

December 23, 2009

Panto panto panto! When Christmas rolls around, it’s my chance to experience the wonder of this traditional English fare, which turns me from a bitter theater grinch into a giggling six-year-old clutching a twinkling fairy wand in one hand and a fistful of sweets in the other. Okay, maybe I was actually clutching a G&T and the sweets were safely in my bag, but still, last night’s trip to the Hackney Empire made magic happen, just like it has every year I’ve made the trek to this most eastern of theatrical haunts.

My perspective was screwed on just a little more tightly by having gone to an Aladdin barely more than a week before, which led to the shocking discovery that, in spite of nearly every panto I’ve attended feeling like its script was found on the back of a box of cereal, in fact, many of the elements appear to be quite codified. I mean, really, who would ever think of Aladdin having a brother who was named Wishy Washy? I’ve read the fairy tale many times, and I’m positive there was no “Wishy Washy” in the Arabian Nights. I also don’t remember any scene in the Widow Twankey’s laundromat, in which a human being gets thrown into a washer/dryer and “shrinks” then gets run through a wringer and comes out as a paper doll, and yet both pantos had exactly these same elements. I suppose if I’d been going since I was six I’d know that there was always a Wishy Washy, a Twankey, silly policemen, and a very odd laundromat, but it almost seemed like an incredible coincidence given my lack of better cultural context.

So! New Wimbledon Theater and Hackney Empire Aladdin showdown! Brian Blessed and Pamela Anderson versus That Black Dame That’s In Every Hackney Panto and Some Random Woman As Aladdin! And the winner is …


There are just SO many ways the Hackney Aladdin was SO good that it’s almost unfair to compare it to the Wimbledon show, like comparing mom’s home-made chocolate chip cookies to some stale biscuits from Asda. Rather than saying “this was better, that was better,” I will just talk about every little bit of magic that made Hackney’s Aladdin a night of theatrical magic for me, starting from the moment we entered Old Peking’s Ha-Ka-Nay with a lion dancer making its way through the crowd and stage hands waving butterfly and dragon kites around the edges of the balconies. The kids were screaming and laughing and the 70 year old man next to me was already smiling, and I was right there saying “LOOK BEHIND YOU!” at every opportunity, trying to learn the greeting for Wishy Washy (“Wishy Washy You’re So Chung”), and wondering how Twankey’s costumes would hold out.

But wait! Our Aladdin appeared, and it was none other than Anna-Jane Casey from the Menier’s Forbidden Broadway! We had a proper principal boy, in a skirt and with great legs and a fantastic singing voice! WOW! Suddenly her duets with the Chinese Princess became songs that were not just funny and clever but pleasant to listen to, and she got some good dancing in, too!

Of course, what I was waiting for was the fabulous dame Clive Rowe to take the stage as Widow Twankey, and as usual he was a ball of hysteria, not just tottering out in a different, comically camp costume every scene (bonus points for the willow pattern teapot!), but hamming it up so heavily – and, I suspecting, engaging in more than just a little ad-libbing – that at least two of his fellow actors lost it while they were doing a scene. A particularly memorable moment was when he was trading insults with the Empress of China (“You bottle of pepto-bismol!” “You chocolate orange!”) that at some point appeared to degenerate into actual, extremely funny, name calling. And then there was the moment he rolled off the couch where he’d been flirting with the ever so sexy Evil Magician Abenazzer (I don’t know his name but GOD he’s good looking), lost his wig, then (after some frantic moments) reappeared on the couch with his wig on backwards. I can’t say he carried on without losing a beat but the whole thing just added to the general high spirits. I can’t tell you what a treasure Rowe is: I will spend the rest of my life wanting to see dames of this quality in panto and I suspect in this day in age I will rarely see one of his quality again.Hackney Empire "Aladdin:" Off to Arabia - with the genie and ... on Twitpic

Well! I could go on and on about what a damned good evening this was, but I would just be rambling. Susie McKenna is a genius and there’s something wonderful about coming back to see so many of the same talented people coming back to this space to put on a show that somehow, even this far into the run and as the second show of that evening, was fresh and lively and delightful. As they say, if you’re only going to see one panto this Christmas … make sure you go to Hackney, because that’s where all of the magic is hiding again, the magic that turns me, Grouchy Theater McScrooge, into a giggling lump with tears running down her cheeks. Really, don’t miss it.

PS: There are tap dancing pandas. Need I say more?

(This review is for the 7 PM performance that took place on Tuesday, December 22nd, 2-009. The final performance is January 9th, 2010. See the Hackney Empire‘s website for more details, and please consider making a donation to help them stay open as after this year’s panto they will be dark for rather a while.)

Review – “Mother Goose” – Hackney Empire

December 11, 2008

It was three years ago that I went to my first Panto – the Old Vic’s Aladdin with Sir Ian as Widow Twanky. It was great fun and a real change from any theater I’d seen before – rather like the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with more audience participation than I would have guessed possible. After I moved here, I made going to Panto one of my new traditions (along with fireworks on Bonfire Night) – it’s something I really enjoy! And for the last two Christmas seasons, the Hackney Empire has put on the best Panto in London, so this third round I went in with my hopes high.

One of the neat things about going to the Hackney is that I’ve become familiar with the cast and the style of the productions. This year once again featured Clive Rowe as its dame, rather appropriately the big star as “Mother Goose,” giving him the maximum opportunity to show off his pipes and the many fantastic costumes Lotte Collett cooked up. (He seemed to have not nearly enough stage time as Ma Whittington last year and I was glad to see him in nearly every scene this time.) We were mostly saved the trauma of the ever so dull “lead boy,” and instead had Abigail Rosser as “Princess Jill” and Kat B as Mother Goose’s postboy son. Both of them were fine, but as usual it’s the baddies that are fun to watch. This year we had Tony Whittle as “Baron Bonkers,” the henchman of Mother Goose’s arch enemy, Vanity (a sort of evil fairy), and Tameka Empson as Frightening Freda. I’m pretty sure I saw Tameka as Cinderella’s evil mother two years ago – her height and distinctive voice rang a bell – but one way or another she was just great to watch in this show. Her character, dressed in gold lame and with a million cell phones dangling from her belt like severed heads on Kali, was sassy and sharp and allowed Tameka to display her great comic timing.

Whittle had a hard time holding up against her, but he showed his brilliance this year (as last – I am thinking he was Dick Whittington’s employer?) in some top-notch improv, both times when Mother Goose made a mistake – first when a gag with some plates fell flat (as it were – they refused to break), the second time when they were doing a sort of love scene and they both were fighting so furiously to keep from laughing they were having a hard time getting their lines out. Frankly, Whittle would make it worth coming back to see the show a second time just to see what kind of goofy quips he came up with.

The show overall was full of fun, with lots of unnecessary singing (I just couldn’t get enough of Charity, the good fairy, played by Sharon Clarke, and apparently neither could the woman sitting next to me, who sang along with her rather a lot), cheesy rhymes, and a hysterical bit of tap dancing from the tiny tykes they have performing in the background (several times as sheep, which was also cracking me up). The show really went OTT during the “hell” scene, when Mother Goose goes into the bad part of the forest to try to get an elixir for eternal youth (or something of that sort). The black light scene, which included popping and locking skeletons, was far cooler than I had any right to expect; and the creepy trees were straight out of MGM’s Wizard of Oz. There was a moral lesson at the end (maybe two or three), and of course a singalong, which was as horribly unpoetic as anything you could hope to be forced to participate in whilst flapping your arms like a goose. In short, the Hackney has once more produced what I’m sure will be a grand success – and at the best price of any of the big house pantos I’ve seen, showing their real commitment to making family friendly entertainment. Me, I’m already looking forward to next year’s show!

(This show is for a performance seen on Friday, December 5, 2008. Mother Goose continues through January 10th.)