Posts Tagged ‘Finborough Theatre’

Double Header Review – Weald, Finborough Theatre and Battlefield, Young Vic

February 24, 2016

There are two sweet, short shows on right now that end this week, and if you’re trying to decide which to book, you’re probably going to have to choose one or the other. Weald, on through the 27th at the Finborough, is a highly naturalistic show set in present day England that looks at the relationship between an older and a younger man working at a horse stable. Battlefield (at the Young Vic through the 27th), written and directed by Peter Brook (and Marie-Hélène Estienne), is a highly stylized slice of the Mahabharata, an epic story of battle and family rivalry. Night and day, right?

Well, actually, seeing the two shows so closely together, I found many more similarities than differences between them. Peter Brook, as world famous director, seems the likely choice to have created a better product, but in some ways his style has very much informed the production of Weald, which is (seemingly) all about horses with nary a horse on stage. Brook has us seeing gods walking on stage, people transforming into animals, souls leaving bodies and fires raging on stage; Weald similarly takes tiny cues (a bridle, feed buckets) and creates the snuffling, kicking, smelly, warm ungulates that are never represented by so much as a single hoof. It’s all about the actors and the words, and in both cases, our actors take us on a journey: to scenes of tragic death; to scenes of horrible betrayal; to scenes in which the golden light of humanity shines out of a mere actor’s eyes. I saw the grassy countryside through which Cromwell’s army marched, and the blood covered banks of the Ganges; and the goddess of the river rising and crying.

Weald isn’t a perfect script (Battlefield is doubtlessly stronger), and while Peter Brook has honestly created something I can mostly only describe as a perfect theatrical experience, well … I’d like to encourage you to try to see Weald, especially if you have seen a Brook work on stage before. I feel language that is so believable – and is about the world we live in now – is not often come by, and this work by a younger playwright could use you more that Brook can. But, really, they were both very special. Might I suggest you catch the final Sunday show and do the Brook as well? I think you will not consider it time poorly spent; I found it lovely.

(This review is for the Sunday February 21st performance of Weald and the Tuesday February 23rd performance of Battlefield.)

Review – Princess Ida – The Steam Industry and Szpiezak Productions at Finborough Theater

March 31, 2015

Living in the UK has transformed how I’ve seen Gilbert and Sullivan’s work. From fusty and dusty it’s gone all topsy-turvy, thanks to the graceful restoration work performed under Sasha Regan’s fine eye at the Union Theater and now the rambunctious re-engagement of Charles Court Opera. As a mainstay of US Am Dram groups, it was turgid and nap-inducing: with all-male casts (like Regan’s Pirates of Penzance) and clever restagings a la much of Shakespeare’s canon (in the case of Charles Court – the goffick Patience was an excellent example), we have been allowed to re-engage with the work from a narrative and a musical standpoint. The bones of Gilbert and Sullivan, like the oak supports of an old house, are amazing: strip off the wallpaper and the adversion to discussion anything sexual and suddenly you have singable, witty musicals populated by eminently memorable characters all being very funny.

Yet bubbling beneath the surface like a sulfuric spring in the Med is the possibility that even G&S may have had a few clunkers. Look, for example, at Princess Ida. I asked a friend about this production, and his response was that it was Gilbert “punching down,” as offensive as Taming of the Shrew but “with less excuse.” I was shocked: this is the biggest Gilbert and Sullivan fan that I know! But I was also a bit put off when I saw that it hadn’t been performed professionally in London “for over 20 years” (per the website). And then I discovered that it was written in iambic verse. Oh man! Obviously it didn’t get produced for two decades because it’s a total dog! Arrgh! But I had already booked tickets for Saturday’s show and I decided to just tough it out.

As it turns out, both the warnings I’d received and the fears I’d conceived were unfounded. Yes, this play pokes fun at women’s education, making the point that members of the “gentle sex” are generally incapable of intellectual rigor due to their sensibilities; but there was no doubt in my mind that the men of this piece were also presented as fairly brainless and driven by their hormones. So my worries about it being mean and intolerable were allayed; in fact, one of the highlights of the evening was a song called “Must” (in the original by Lady Blanche, but I believe sung by Lady Meg – Victoria Quigley – in this production). It ends in a call for women to get the vote, and I found it very touching – but, as it turns, this creation, both in verse and sentiment, is almost entirely the work of Phil Wilmott, who looked back on this musical moment through the lens of history and decided to expand it. There was also a rather revised ending that proposes a much happier future for some than the hopelessly heterocentric original could have ever conceived; it was obviously not G&S but it was funny and I think it felt fresh and appropriate.

From the production side, there’s no denying it was done on a budget – two electric pianos (not that you could fit much more in the Finborough and as it was, one of them nearly wound up in the audience); a set that barely manages two different looks; and costumes that aim for Alma Tadema but manage with their unusual seaming to hit Hubba Hubba Honey (for both Ida and Prince Cyril – Ida’s should be less bum hugging and Cyril ought not to be so short as to have us thinking of Scotsman and their underkilt attire). But, still, the goal isn’t to recreate the original, but to give us a change to experience the music (written, all agree, when G&S were at their creative heights) and (most of) the plot. Wisely, there is no stinting with the quality of the performers. Bridget Costello is effortlessly winning as Princess Ida, with her warm voice and sparkling blue eyes: of course all of the princes of the kingdoms would come to win her hand! And to cast Simon Butteriss (perhaps you remember him from Topsy-Turvy?) as Lord Gama, Ida’s uptight yet lecherous guardian, is just stonking good luck for us in the audience – he’s supercilious and unctuous, a horrible combination of Grand Moff Tarkin and Benny Hill – but most importantly, a damned fine singer with a sharp sense of comic timing. In fact, down to the maids/maidens and the lesser princes, the whole cast emanates personality and tunefulness, so that all we need to be transported is small hints in the forms of props and carefully draped statues. It’s an incredibly enjoyable event.

Is it, though, a textbook example of theater of the Victorian age and the sentiments that the Victorians held? No, it is modern, both in its approach and its reconstruction of the dialogue and lyrics to meet modern views while still keeping to the arc of the story. This allows us to hear wonderful songs that we would otherwise have missed out on while being extravagantly amused. I highly enjoyed my night out and, based on ticket sales, you had better jump on those tickets or you may have to wait another 20 years to get your chance.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 28, 2015. It continues through April 18th.)

Review – The White Carnation – Troupe at the Jermyn Street Theater

February 13, 2014

After watching the transfer production of The White Carnation at Jermyn Street, I had this sudden vision of what it was I had just seen: comfort theater. Do you want to see a show in which people don’t deal with really difficult issues, a show with an upbeat ending, a show in which most of the people are comic caricatures of actual human beings, a show with a fair amount of laughs that sends you home feeling warm and fuzzy? Well, The White Carnation is just the play for you. As the lights came up and I looked over the sea of well dressed, gray haired attendees at the first night of this show’s transfer from the Finborough, I felt that in no way was anyone wanting a night that would be mentally/emotionally/physically taxing.

And that’s exactly what The White Carnation delivers. It’s a ghost story, but a comedy; a comedy with a vicar (Benjamin Whitrow, spotless) making jokes about how wrong it would be for a Catholic to try to exorcise a ghost that had been Church of England when alive: a comedy in which civil servants (Phillip York, a bit heavy handed) and town councilmen go wild trying to figure out how law applies to the walking dead; a play in which a policeman (Thomas Richardson, really laying it on) feels free to try to convince someone he’s guarding that they should go into business together. It’s not really a farce, per se, but a play in which British stereotypes and British bureaucracy are given a platform to play freely and the audience is allowed to have a good laugh. I had actually been expecting something quite creepy and disturbing, like An Inspector Calls or The Woman in White, but instead I actually had quite a few good laughs (I know, finally a comedy that I actually enjoy, it had been ages!).

Now, I can’t fault the performance of Michael Praed as the lead character, John Greenwood – he seemed seamlessly to be what he was meant to be, a rich man who was very focused on money and a bit of a bully – but so many of the rest of the actors seemed so cardboardy. I couldn’t feel it was much their fault (as it was a transfer, I expect they were pretty settled in their roles) as it just seemed that it’s how they were written – Sherriff wasn’t intending on pushing his audience, he wanted to please them.

But, you know, The White Carnation did what it said on the tin, and I did managed to be both surprised and a little teary at the ending. You may not have seen it before, so I’ve tried to be obscure about the plot points; but if you want to be lightly entertained, this play (and production) will certainly deliver. Otherwise, for about the same price you can see a trio of Samuel Becket plays across the West End at the Duchess. (I preferred it but frankly I don’t want to have exotic small plates for dinner every night; sometimes a Sunday roast is really what the doctor ordered.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on February 5th. It continues through February 22nd.)

Review – As Is – Finborough Theater

August 10, 2013

It’s been a lovely, warm, sunny summer, the kind that turns a young woman’s thoughts to sitting in the garden and having a nice drink in the evening. So what was I doing, I asked myself, going into a dark room to watch a play about AIDS? It was totally against the whole concept of summertime. But what was I supposed to do? I’d said yes to the Finborough’s invite to see As Is before I’d even looked up anything about the play (or finished reading the email), so I had no one to blame but myself that I wasn’t heading off to see a comedy (or even a science fiction blockbuster, the other thing I like to see during this time of the year). I said yes because it was the first London production in 25 years of a play that had won an Obie … and, well, because I’d been invited. I don’t get on a lot of lists for press nights so I tend to feel immensely flattered when a theater I frequent considers ME a worthy. (And, dude, Stephen Frye was THREE SEATS OVER FROM ME – illustrious company indeed!)

Anyway, so into the cavern of gloom I went, dreading my evening of preaching, cliches, obvious plot twists, GOD ISSUE PLAYS HOW I HATE THEM. At least the air conditioning was working …

Things got off to a bit of a bad start, with a Jewish/Irish/Northern former nun (Clare Kissane, her accent was all over the place) bellowing her life story at us poor front row dwellers from one foot away. I was having a hard time suspending my disbelief and getting into any kind of story; I had a sudden fear the night was actually going to be actively bad. It wasn’t helped when the proper play actually started with Rich (Tom Colley) and Saul (David Poynor) having a a canned, hysterical breakup argument with each other, “who gets the copper pots/who gets the Barcelona chair.” Poynor overused a trembling hand to express stress and it all felt very heavy-handed. And somehow I just felt a sense of DOOM DOOM DOOM why did I ever come.

And then … that thing happened. It was the early 80s. In front of my eyes, I was seeing gay male culture in New York at a cultural peak, beautiful raw unfettered sexuality expressed in all of its manifest forms, a freedom experienced that had not been present for centuries. These gorgeous, yummy, smart (and sometimes stupid) men, reveling in the wonder of being alive and being human, were dancing and flirting and loving their lives in front of me … and everything was on the verge of change. Rich’s shallowness and desire to live a life that was meaningful for him was about to face-slam into a realization of the fallibility of human flesh. On a less personal scale, the societal movement toward greater acceptance and tolerance was being cut off by the fear of death and an easy willingness to re-ghettoize a population that was just teetering on societal acceptance. All of it, to me, seemed a paen to a lost era of joy.

Oddly, Rich and Saul’s story never became maudlin, preachy, over-sentimentalized, or a mere tool for the author to make some political points. Instead, it stays focused on their relationship with each other, which is the kind of thing that actually transcends a historical moment and becomes universal, and thus, as a play, lasting. While the medical and social situation they were in was firmly rooted in the world of the early 80s, the concerns they had were universal. And, given where the playwright chose to cut the play, the obvious move into hagiography was skipped in favor of a visceral reality of relationships based on love, respect, and genuine attraction, faced with the upheaval of a possibly terminal illness. It did not end on a cheapened note; instead, we saw the rudeness and roughness of two people who, underneath the fleeting ties of physical attraction, truly loved and trusted one another. And that, really, was a wonderful thing to see represented on a stage. I left the theater feeling uplifted and exhilarated – absolutely the opposite of what I expected. Twenty-five years later, As Is had so much to offer, and I’m glad I was there to take it in.

(This review is for the performance that took place on Thursday, August 8th, 2013. It continues through Saturday August 31st.)

Review – Me and Juliet – Finborough Theatre

October 31, 2010

I am depressed by the quality of new musicals. Jukebox musicals don’t express personality or plot, and all of the glorious costumes in Priscilla couldn’t compensate for tunes that were merely glued on; current popular musical stylings result in songs I can’t stand (Les Mis, Wicked) or, more insultingly, can’t remember. And then of course there was Paradise Found. It’s a desert out there, I tell you, with tiny little dandelions (Avenue Q, Drowsy Chaperone) just occasionally poking their heads up from the gravel. This has driven me further into the Church of the Classic Musical, where I can, at least, hear words that make my brain engage and tunes I can whistle as I walk out of the theater. Thus “Lost Musicals” has become such a thrill for me, and so has finding less-popular works by the great songwriting teams. Thus Finborough Theater’s production of Me and Juliet, a Rogers and Hammerstein show from 1953, went BING BING BING when I saw it bubble up in “what’s happening” lists for this fall … though perhaps I ought to have been a bit suspicious given my disappointment in State Fair. After all, if “Blink: and you missed it” taught any lesson, it was that any genius could still crank out a lemon. Still, lemons from this era are hot fudge sundaes compared to what’s on offer from modern composers: so off I went for the European premiere production of Me and Juliet.

The story (as you will not have seen the movie or otherwise been exposed to it, I feel it’s best to add a bit of context) is the kind I think appeals to theater geeks: it’s the back stage antics of a group of people involved in putting on a show (called “Me and Juliet”) in a Broadway theater in 1953. Jeanie (Laura Main, whom I remember from State Fair) is in love with Bob (John Addison), an electrician/lighting guy who seems determined to keep her at arm’s length. Jeanie is a bright-eyed, optimistic girl who is only working as a chorus girl “for the money” – really different from the usual “I’m going to claw my way to the top” character, but more of a “I’m just waiting to fall in love and be a wife” type. Bob reminded me of Billy from Carousel – short tempered, an easy liar, somewhat violent – not the kind of guy you’d pick as a sympathetic male lead for a musical. Much more appealing is Larry (Robert Hands), the assistant stage manager, who apparently has a crush on Jeanie and is trying to help her develop the talent he sees in her. Where will this all lead? (I’ll leave that question hanging so as to not spoil the fun. How often do you get to see a 60 year old musical about which you know so little?)

Most of the fun is actually provided by the interaction of the cast members – the stage manager who is a bully but gets his when an old flame gets in the cast; the fun Jeanie and new star of the show, Betty (Jodie Jacobs) have with each other, clowning around backstage; the debate the front of house crew and audience members have (via the song “Intermission Talk”) about whether or not theater is dead, which was the high point of the show for me. I loved that I cared about every word of the songs that were sung; the cast members generally sang well and the dancing done on the very small stage was both quite respectable and a good use of the space. In fact, I’ve never seen the Finborough looking so good (though it’s only my third visit). The costumes didn’t hold up to my standards (I’m very picky about 1940s/1950s looks and am convinced I could do better on whatever budget they had to work with, though of course I’d just pull it all from my closet) but were tolerable and even fun; and hey, there was a tap dancing routine!

Though the play itself occasionally was slow and the story not … I don’t know, iconic, I’ve got to mention one point that really raised the adrenaline in the room: the cha-cha/”south of the border” number. This seems to have been a requirement in nearly every musical created in the 1950s, though I don’t understand just what was going on culturally to make this happen. Think Desi Arnaz in “I Love Lucy” and of course “Who’s Got the Pain” from Damn Yankees: if you’re having fun, you’ve got to have some cha-cha/samba/Cuban fever happening. It’s bizarre: still, there were the actors coming out on stage with maracas, getting ready to experience some Latin rhythms. They all got into a circle for the big production number … and suddenly a maraca shot out of nowhere, heading straight for my head! It grazed my hair and disappeared, leaving me feeling like the angel of death had just passed by: back on stage, the man who’d been holding it carried gamely on shaking his empty hand, with that “deer in the headlight” look that heralded the near arrival of catastrophic on stage corpsing. How he held it together I do not know, but he got through the scene, ran away like his tail was on fire, and presumably found his composure somewhere backstage. As for the missing maraca, I dug and dug for it after the show but wasn’t able to figure out where it had gone. Still, it was a real moment of backstage (and on stage) high spirits, and gave me a good laugh. I’m pleased to say this wasn’t the high point of the night – but overall, this was a very enjoyable evening, worth the hike to Earl’s Court and well worth the cost of the ticket.

(This review is for a performance that took place the evening of Saturday, October 23rd, 2010. The last performance was Saturday, October 30th. My apologies if you missed it!)

Review – State Fair – Finborough Theater

August 21, 2009

On Wednesday, Worthy Opponent, hard core musicals fan Amy, and I headed to the great wild west of London (Earl’s Court, to be more precise) to see the Finborough Theater’s production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, which I’d been told about on somebody’s Twitter feed. This show had special interest to be because 1) it was Rogers and Hammerstein and 2) it was the show of theirs that was originally written for a movie and was done when R&J were at the height of their powers. And, of course, I’d never seen it, in part because as a musical to be performed live, it’s a fairly new creation. To top it all off, it was directed by Thom Sutherland, who’s Annie Get Your Gun was one of the best musicals I’ve seen in London.

My hope was that seeing this would expose me to a motherlode of missing R&H songs of the same caliber as those in Oklahoma. But it wasn’t the case, and instead, most of the songs seemed weak or throwaways, though “All I Owe Ioway” (“I-O-I-O-WAY!”) was a real barn burner (tee hee) and “More than Just A Friend” (a.k.a. “Sweet Hog of Mine“) was funny and had great barbershop-style harmonies. Researching this later, this makes some sense, as many of these songs were actually discards. The original five from the 1945 film included Academy Award winner, “It Might As Well Be Spring,” but, really, five songs isn’t much to build a musical on, so it makes sense that they had to add more – but unfortunately this did not allow for a production that even had the least hopes of Oklahoma‘s musicality.

The script itself was also rather thin. I’m actually very willing to buy into a show about a farm family putting their prize pickles and pigs into a competition – hell, I’ve entered my own baked goods into the Johnson County fair and the Arizona State fair, so I’m no stranger to the whole business – but the plot line about the romance between Wayne Frake (Siôn Lloyd) and Emily (Helen Phillips?) just didn’t make any sense to me. It’s possible the other romance, that of Margy (Laura Main) and Pat, only made sense because Margy had a glorious, peaches and cream innocence to her – and voice that matched – but I suspect that instead I found her wish to not be trapped in a romance she didn’t want back home, and Pat’s desire to not be trapped in a dead-end job after the excitement of being a war correspondence (which leads to him standing Margy up the last night of the fair) far more honest than a showgirl falling for a farm boy in any way.

Or, well, maybe some of it was just how horrible Emily was. I have to blame the costuming for this; with her 2009 sharp edged blonde locks and 1980s ball gowns, she looked like a slumming Russian hooker. (In her first appearance, I was convinced she was a prostitute working the midway – which I found a bit hard to combine with the family-friendly nature of a 40’s musical, but which is what goes on in real life at these fairs.) This combined with her inability to sell the role served to pretty much kill any scene that she was in.

This leads to a more general complaint: the costuming and hair for this show actually brought it down a full two stars, as it DISTRACTED me from the show. So many things were so horribly wrong – the tiered red skirt one of the actresses wore, Ma’s god-awful hair (totally nice in real life but layered hair just wasn’t happening in the 40s), the vile dresses the nightclub singers wore. I could almost forgive the hair (except for Emily, because it was so utterly wrong, I would have donated money to the theater to have paid for a wig for her), but since there’s a MOVIE people can watch to do their research, where, I ask you, did they come up with their ideas for what was appropriate? Even budget is no excuse. The choices were so wrong that it looked like half of the cast was costumed from a bag that was pulled at random from in front of a charity shop. Thank goodness most of the men were passable, but AGH.

While many in the cast were good singers and Pa (Philip Rham) could totally fill the little theater with his big voice, unfortunately Ma (Susan Travers) was not hitting it the night I went. Perhaps it was the heat – it was so intense inside the theater (I’m guessing 30-33) that, even with my bottle of water, I grew lightheaded before intermission hit – it was like doing an hour long commute on the Victoria line in the worst of the summer. We were warned to bring something to drink on, but at these temperatures they should have kept the AC running during the show and let the cast sing over it. I gotta say, I can’t remember the last time I went to a show where I lost weight before the end of the night, but I had a dehydration headache like nobody’s business the next day, which was a pitiful thing given that all I’d had to drink was water.

Overall, while some of the dancing was good and some of the singers were very good, this was just a rather weak show – worth seeing if you’re an R&J completist, but otherwise far more fringey and amateurish than most of what I’ve seen off of the West End. And if it’s above 27 outside, I’d just skip it altogether – unless you want to wear a swimsuit and pretend you’re dropping in for a Bikram Yoga session.

(This review was for a performance that took place on Wednesday, August 19th. State Fair continues at the Finborough through August 29th, 2009.)