Posts Tagged ‘Fram’

How I rate shows

May 5, 2012

You may notice if you read this blog much that I don’t assign star ratings to shows. I was required to for a while when transferring my reviews to Up The West End, a side project of one of the West End Whingers. Mostly, I don’t like to use stars, because for me so much of a show’s “rating” depends on how much I paid for it. Did my seats cost £75, like they did for Mary Poppins and the Bolshoi’s Giselle? Then I am expecting something pretty damned amazing right from the start. But mostly I try to stick to shows where I pay around £15-£20 for my ticket – a requirement when you’re going to see shows four nights a week.

With that cost scale, here’s what my star rating would look like:

5 stars: changes how I feel about theater. I will talk about it for years to come. I might have cried. If it’s sold out, I’d recommend standing outside in the rain for tickets. (Cock, Giselle, Collaborators, Propellor’s Richard II.) This doesn’t happen much.

4 stars: an extremely enjoyable night out, worth more than what I paid for the tickets. I left elated. I would probably go again. (Crazy for You, Jumpy.)

3 stars: fairly standard yet enjoyable fare, done at a high level of professionalism with a good script. I was engaged. (The King’s Speech, Betty Blue Eyes.)

2 stars: if you don’t really have anything better to do, this is probably not a bad choice, but a night at home watching TV might not be too bad as an alternate. Actually, you can probably skip this play, unless you have a compelling reason to go (collecting all plays by this writer, topic you’re interested in, bored and it’s cheap). (Hay Fever, Much Ado About Nothing at the National, Singing in the Rain.)

1 star: I made a mistake buying this ticket. No matter what I paid for it, I thought it might be better to leave during the interval, unless I really had high hopes that something tremendous and unexpected was going to happen in the second (or third) act. I am resentful about staying to see this show. (Woman Killed with Kindness and pretty much anything Katie Mitchell does, Floyd Collins)

0 stars: Suddenly I realized that I have a limited time on this planet and urgently needed to be making the most of the pitiful hours left to me. In some cases, this may mean I have to leap over other people in order to escape the room. Chances of being scarred are high. (Fram, Pierrot Lunaire, 4:48 Psychosis as done by Fourth Monkey.)

I don’t give numbers in my reviews on this blog because it’s all a bit of a finger in the air thing due to the impact on ticket cost on the “value” of a production (as well as the whole question of how long it is). I think, though, it’s obvious from what I write if the show in question is worth seeing or not, or if it’s just forgettable entertainment, or if it’s actually actively vile.

Do you disagree with this approach? To be honest, I do like the West End Whingers’ use of ratings as it makes it easy for me to preserve the surprise for shows I haven’t seen yet by just scrolling down to the number of wine glasses and then buying tickets for it if it’s a 5 glass show and reading the review later (after I’ve written mine). But then, I think they’re too soft and award 3/5 to shows I consider not worth making an effort for. What do you think?

Review – “Wizard of Oz” – Royal Festival Hall, London

August 6, 2008

“Surrender Dorothy,” indeed. For this show, I think “Beware Dorothy” might be a more appropriate tag.

As someone who grew up watching The Wizard of Oz over and over again (once a year, on TV), the possibility of NOT seeing this show was small. Basically, every time I saw the ruby slippers on a poster at the Southbank, I knew I had to go. Appropriately, I was promised tickets as a birthday present – what better to bring a sparkle to my eye? – then studiously avoided reading all reviews of the show until I went last night.

This may or may not have been a good thing.

From the beginning, I had problems with elements of this show. I liked the Kansas version of the set, with a video screen overhead showing images of fields and stormy skies and the floor fenced off by corrugated metal that nicely implied a not very rich farmstead. But from the minute she came on stage, Dorothy (Sian Brooke) rubbed me the wrong way. First, she seemed whiny rather than plucky (home from school on a farm? I promise you you’d be set to doing chores right away, not bothering the farmhands with your gossip), and her accent was atrocious. How can English actors get 40 kinds of English accents right and fail so miserably at almost every American accent? “Southern” and “New Yawk” do not substitute for Midwestern, and Dorothy sounded like she was about to run down the road to Tara and make a fancy dress out of the drapes. I was mortified. Not only do people from Kansas not talk like that (I should know), but neither did Judy Garland (whose performance was so clearly influencing this one) in this or any other movie.

That said, I was patient at the beginning despite my frustrations. Toto was adorable (though ever so focused on the contents of Dorothy’s pockets – ah, dogs!), the various characters were still establishing themselves (though mostly coming off a little cardboardy), Kansas isn’t exactly supposed to be “magical,” so there was still plenty of time for things to improve.

Sadly, the magic never happened at all. Dorothy’s tornado scene should have blown the metal away in preparation for entering a new world. Instead, she lay on her bed as it circled around the stage floor, while the video screen showed childish drawings of a spring around a funnel, with occasional projections over the spring of a boat, a cow, a bicycle, and a witch (if these were the “visual installation,” Huntley Muir has a lot to answer for). These drawings became a source of amusement for me, and I made sketches of them to show just how bad they were (see reproductions, fairly lifelike, made in MS Paint, the first the projection used while on the Yellow Brick Road, the other the one that appeared when they were in the forest finding the Tin Man) since I wasn’t particularly captured by the “action” on stage.YellowBrickRoadsign

So … Oz, land of wonders. Or not. The world was still full of corrugated metal, with a tiny opening in the back of the stage (6 by 15 feet?) showing blue skies and representing arrival in Munchkinland, now full of small children who managed to sing a bit but struggled with their dialogue. At this point, the failures in the lighting design (by Mike Gunning) began to really irritate me. A group of moving people in what is supposed to be an outdoor space should not be walking in and out of shadows on stage. Is this a problem with the Royal Festival Hall, say a lack of places to plug in lights? At the very least, much heavier use should have been made of follow spots; I would have kept one constantly trained on the red slippers during the entire time they were on the Wicked Witch of the East’s feet. Instead, they sat in the shadows, somewhat forlorn, a rather sad fate for such well publicized footwear.

TinManProjectionThroughout the entire time in Oz, the metal background never went away. The scene in the cornfield (full of crows who looked like Goth versions of Robert Michener in Night of the Hunter) took place surrounded by metal, the poppy field (in which escapees from St. Trinians held giant red flowers over their heads) was similarly ghetto gated, even the Emerald City had a shantytown look to it. By the time we made it to the Wild West hangout of the Wicked Witch of the West (featuring cowboy hatted and duster wearing, all-black, “Yo hee oh” chanting Winkies – what had gone wrong with this world?), I’d long given up on ever escaping from this dim little set. Was there no fly system to carry things away? Was there no backstage? Did the revolve only provide a tatty little yellow marley circle for the performers to half-heartedly stroll on?

What I found myself longing for (other than for the people who sat in the audience talking like they were at home watching TV to DIE) was the raw energy and enthusiasm of Pantos. (This show isn’t done as one per my English born companion, but I had thought from reading the West End Whingers’ article on why they weren’t going to see the “Wizard of Oz” that it was). The Cowardly Lion (Gary Wilmot) was getting there; he hammed it up, gave his lines 110%, and acted like he needed to act loud enough for the people at the back of this barn (most of us) to feel his performance. While this wouldn’t have been appropriate for a really serious performance, it seemed like it fit with this show fairly well. And the Tin Man (Adam Cooper) was not a bad dancer and actually tossed in some gratuitous (and much appreciated) tap moments. In fact, for me, the closest this got to magic was when the gang of four were bitten by a “jitterbug” and all wound up dancing around on stage. This show could have used a lot more of this kind of action – as well as a lot more enthusiasm in general.

It seemed ultimately it was all brought down by Sian Brooke, who just seemed to be going through the paces (the joke in our row being she was off to Oz in search of acting lessons and returning to Kansas hoping to find her accent). Is she upset at being trapped in this turkey and just biding her time until her contract is over? I haven’t seen such a listless performance since the closing week 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, in whch the half-full houses seemed to be pulling the smiles off of the chorus members’ faces en masse. Maybe she just found the work of taking care of a dog and acting at the same time too much to handle, but in a town with the depth of theater talent that London has, there is simply no excuse for her lackluster performance. She let down every other person on stage, except for Toto, who, obviously, isn’t a person and appeared to be having a great time, which meant at least one living creature in this horrid barn was. Certainly the 10 year old napping on my shoulder wasn’t, nor her 8 year old sister.

In short: not as bad as Fram (see the Framometer at the WestEnd Whinger’s site – and note we actually stayed through the interval though I would left if this hadn’t been my birthday present – my friend said the increasingly hysterical levels of cheese were encouraging him to stay to see just how bad it could get) but still a turkey and TOO DAMNED LONG. Don’t take your kids, don’t go yourself, play your get out of jail free card before you buy and take a pass on this mess.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, August 5th, 2008. For an even more sizzling review, read Russell’s Theatre Reviews, where the origin of the horrible overhead projections is explained in great detail. The good news is that West Side Story, which I’ll be seeing next week, is supposed to be great, as is Pygmalion, which I’m seeing tonight, and even Into the Hoods, which ends at the end of this month, should be fun.)

Review – Under the Blue Sky – Duke of York’s Theatre

July 23, 2008

Last night I went with the WestEnd Whingers and crewe to see “Under the Blue Sky” at the Duke Of York’s theater.

Ostensibly this should segue right into a review of a show, but I have to pause and take a moment to praise the company. To go see a show with the Whingers means that, for once, I am surrounded by a crowd of people who can talk really intelligently about theater. By this, I don’t mean “namedrop famous actors/productions they’ve seen” (God only knows a lot of people think that constitutes clever conversation on the topic), and I also don’t mean “try to top each other in snarkiness” (because while they will baste and roast a turkey when they find one, it’s the underlying enthusiasm for the medium that makes the conversation even possible). No, I mean they can talk about other shows, new ones worth seeing, old ones worth remembering, connecting them to other plays and other works of art … letting me listen, learn and participate in great conversation in a company of my peers (and beyond). Sue, CitySlicker, Helen, Phil, Andrew, Graham, Paul (the GWTW Twitter man) … spending the evening with you is like a dream come true for me.

Anyway, I was naughty and didn’t read anything about the show before I went. Basically, it had Catherine Tate in it, whom I’ve had a good time watching on YouTube (even though it’s frequently been in car crash mode – it’s embarrassing but I can’t turn away), and, well, I was invited to go by people I wanted to hang out with, so I just went for it. The day of I realized I didn’t actually even know what theater it was in! And when I got there, I had a “bad theater experience” flashback (rather like the ones caused by Fram nowadays) right before the show started, as I remembered struggling through almost two hours (so it seemed) of the first act of Rock and Roll with seven cups of tea crying for a quick departure from my body. I finally leapt over four or five other audience members to make it to an exit door during a between-scene dark bit (and there were rather a lot of them) and spending the rest of the act watching the play through a bit of scratched-off paint on a window while the assistant director whispered to me a summary of the dialogue.

Er, so, back to the show. Uhhh …. well, it’s about teachers shagging teachers, and it’s kind of funny in bits, but touching in others (I cried during the last scene and felt just horribly manipulated, even though I liked it), and it plays straight through with no interval. I’d find it okay to recommend to people in general, in a great deal because it knows when to stop – it’s not a bad night out, really.

But. (I’m sorry, I just can’t stop myself, I have to say more.) The play is … incoherent. It has three scenes that don’t really seem to have anything to do with each other, even though the playwright has ensured that the characters in scene one are mentioned in the subsequent ones. The acting in the first scene is wooden – Chris O’Dowd’s first lines read to me as, “Hi! I’m acting in a play and these are the words I am supposed to say!” And while I don’t know what his accent was supposed to be, it seemed kind of … fluid. Lisa Dillon seemed to jump more readily into her character, but for both of them I found neither their words nor their actions made any sense. There was a sense to the situation … but not their responses to it or to each other. They seemed just like people who existed only as words written on a page. Only the writer can ultimately take the blame for this. (That said, huge kudos to the both of the actors for actually succeeding in making chile on stage during a show. I could smell each of the ingredients cooking in the pan from my second row seats and it smelled good.)

The second scene was the big blow out (well, in terms of “what the audience came to see”) with Catherine Tate and some actor that wasn’t Catherine Tate (in the minds of the audience – but seriously, it was Dominic Rowan, who gets brownie points for conjuring up tears on stage). This was a sort of sex farce scene that cracked me up because, er, the one teacher I know in the UK public school system is really as much of a ballbreaker as Catherine Tate’s character was and it all just seemed too likely to be true. That said … as she got meaner and the guy got weaselier/creepier … I found myself not liking either of them. In fact, I wanted terrible things to happen to both of them just to spice up the scene. (I thought this during the first act, too.) Since neither of them really managed to seem real, it just didn’t matter to me what happened to them. I laughed at the crude bits and thanked God that actual nudity was never involved as it would have been Too Much, and while something terrible did happen, I was happy about it.

The final scene was for me the best part of the play, even though the long speech in the middle was, once again, completely unrealistic and took me out of the “lost in the show” mindset (and made me firmly aware of being at a play). Actorially speaking, we had two powerhouses: Francesca Annis (whom I had not previously seen but who held the stage … I mean, she just had it) and Nigel Lindsay (who smoked the Almeida in Homecoming and was quite charismatic in a rather limp production of Awake And Sing at the same theater). Lindsay was brilliant, utterly unselfconscious, perfectly in character, completely believable – I hung off of every word that came out of his mouth. His body language, everything was perfect for the character he was portraying. (And who knows, maybe the playwright understood this language better than that of the other characters he was creating dialogue for.) Watching him interact with Annis was a pleasure for me. That said … when they said that another character was dead, my feeling was actually one of relief, that I wasn’t going to have to see the rest of the wooden characters brought back on stage for some sort of horrible resolution (a la any number of cheesy movies) after the interval, but just instead could walk out of the theater with the show wrapped and on a bit of an up note.

Anyway, my summary is that this show was flawed but, still, not a bad night out, and, in fact, I think most people who would enjoy it wouldn’t really care about the stuff that bothered me. For the folks who are super diehards: it’s not a bad way to spend a free night, but, you know, there are likely to be other options. Try Brief Encounter first if you still haven’t been – it’s still the best thing on right now.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on July 22nd, 2008.)

“Fram” review: or, Much Ado About a Sleeping Bag – The National Theatre

April 18, 2008

Once upon a spring night dreary, after work, my friends so weary,
All of us in line awaiting the grand opening of Fram
In the theater, softly sitting, programs clutching, ushers flitting
With the house lights now unlitting, fitting one more in a cram –
To watch a play in verse, I muttered, will need no departure plan –
Fear not Fram

Then the silliness fast started, couplets rudely from stage darted,
Brave explorers bitched and farted killing huskies with a blam –
Some sad ghost on stage expounding piles of twaddle, vowels a’rounding –
And my head has started pounding like a door shut with a slam –
Caught in a seat Olivier at the opening of Fram
Self loving Fram.

Freakish ballet – why now dancing? Oh, the misery of chancing
Upon tickets, which now glancing, seemed too much at ten a man!
My friends twitched and muttered while a Todd-like tale was uttered –
Human pies all freshly buttered, shouts the actress, “Eating man!”
Samoyed round her neck, frail white on white, and never tan –
Utter glam.

And the sad ironic poet with his words that couldn’t show it
Forced the audience to blow it, pulling out of this black jam.
It weren’t funny nor amusing! It was my poor ears abusing!
All those bad rhymes he was using! T’weren’t a play, it was a sham!
Such self indulgent wankery, I cannot help but damn! Run from Fram!
Damned Fram! Poorly Fram!

(Better options for your evening: The Lover and The Collection, which has some £10 seats available, or The Importance of Being Earnest, which you can likely find at the TKTS booth for £25.)

“Fram” review preview – and notes on Wayne Macgregor

April 18, 2008

Fram: in short, no. I can see why they were offering free beer on top of 10 pound tickets to get people in the door. (If you’re interested: £10 tickets plus a free beer for performances from 10 – 29 April. Call 020 7452 3000 and quote ‘Free drink offer’. Be warned that the free beer is a small bottle of Carlsberg and not worth the price.) Inspired by the play itself and the writeup the WestEnd Whingers did, I’m going to work on my own rhymed review for later (I’m leaning toward a villanelle, couplets are inherently too comic) but I had to warn people about this show in case they were trying to figure out what to see tonight. It’s sad to think this play is by “Britain’s Foremost Theatre Poet” – I can only think the list of contenders for this crown is very short. I also have a theory that Fram is the Norweigan word for “Bollocks!” but have not yet checked this on Babelfish. (LATER: rhymed review here, using “The Raven” as inspiration – much more difficult than rhyming couplets!)

I also want to mention that there is a very misplaced ballet section in the first act which is choreographed by Wayne Macgregor, who was there last night. I let myself fangirl to him while he was buying ice cream at intermission and he was SO rude to me! I was going on about how great he was and how I saw his show last weekend and how I’d love to see his work at Pacific Northwest Ballet – and he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m really just not interested.” I stopped dead in my tracks and said (after a pause), “Well, I guess I’ll let you get back to your friends.” What a cock! I’m going to go back and delete my “Wayne Macgregor is God” and replace them with something like “Wayne Macgregor is an ungracious asshole who should spend the rest of his life laboring in obscurity,” even though I’ve already bought tickets to see his next little ballet at the Royal Ballet in May.

Anyway, poem to follow, but I need some time to let it cook in order to fully convey the horror.

Pre-battle jitters (FRAM)

April 17, 2008

I just found out that FRAM, the play we’re going to see tonight at the National, is all in verse. The review the West End Whingers have posted has got me thinking that the free beer I got with my ticket may not be nearly enough.

I am afraid in a way a play about ships and icebergs should never make me be. Frankly, actually being on a ship surrounded by icebergs wouldn’t scare me as much as the idea of a play in which all of the dialogue rhymes. Well, I guess I could be going to see Gone with the Wind

I am having a cup of tea right now, at 5:45 PM, in preparation for what may be a very long night.