Posts Tagged ‘good shows on now’

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Southwark Playhouse

February 14, 2009

Last night I went with a group of friends to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Southwark Playhouse. I’d never been there before and was enticed to attend the performance strictly on the basis of the flyer I saw at the Union Theater last month – and the fact they said the whole performance took only 90 minutes*! (The previous Midsummer I’d seen, at the Roundhouse, seemed to go way too long, and I didn’t want a repeat of that, even on a Friday.) The flyer showed a girl made up to look like an apprentice Geisha (with a strong touch of The Mikado in her styling), and just looked so pretty and charming that I thought, hey, this looks like something that could really work, and it’s one of those cute little south London theatrical spaces that need my support, and why not go? So seven of us rolled the dice and descended on the Southwark Playhouse in hope of a good night out.

As it turns out, my hope was repaid in spades. Everything about this performance was a pleasure to me, from the sound design to the set to the movement, the costuming, the props, and (of course) the performance – including the number of actors they’d chosen to perform it (utterly fat-free at seven). Instead of the normal uncomfortable yuck I felt with the arrival of the usually painfully imaginary Greek monarchs** Theseus (Kenji Watanabe) and Hippolyta (You-Ri Yamanaka), I was actually pulled in my their regal bearing and effortlessly graceful movement (as they knelt on stage to accept the petitions of Egeus and the youngsters) and … by God, they’d created a court in front of me, and I bought that the humbly bowing Hermia (Nina Kwok) actually had her life on the line by daring to reject her father’s match. I don’t think Demetrius (David Lee-Jones) and Lysander (Matt McCooey) were entirely believable as samurai – but that was okay, we had a story to tell and the accommodation was a small one since the overall premise of the show (the ball that starts the drama rolling) had actually been made digestible to me for the first time ever.

With so much of the play pared away, the dialogue popped way to the fore, and I found myself paying far more attention and actually really being able to enjoy the poetry of Shakespeare’s words. The description of love and lovers seemed gorgeously suitable for a pre-Valentine’s play, and Lysander’s later rejection of Hermia as “an acorn … a dwarf!” incredibly harsh and cutting (and funny). Hermia and Helena (Julia Sandiford)’s light and dark pink kimono were both suitably romantic, young-lady appropriate, and plain enough to do double duty – or in this case triple duty, as they played themselves, two members of the acting troupe AND members of Titania’s fairy court! I was really impressed at how well the actors handled all of these transitions and that they were able to appropriately convey them with the addition of an apron or a mask, while the bodies remained dressed in the same colors (nice job to the costumer, whom I’m guessing is Wai Yin Kwok, credited as “designer” in the program). Possibly more impressive were the props, which consisted entirely of … fans. Not a bunch of fans, either, but about six, which were cups to be drunk from, flowers to be plucked, scripts, scrolls, you name it – everything except for the wall and the lion’s mane used by the Rude Mechanicals in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

I also liked the way the performance was done movement-wise, in two ways. First, the hall was set up so that we were watching – er – theater in the oblong. You see, there was a long ramp down the middle, with a painting on both ends, and we the audience set up on both sides of the stage. And yet (though I was sat in the middle), I only felt once or twice like I was missing any of the action due to blocked sight lines. I liked having the actors exit from both ends of the theater – and I liked how they could appear at the top of the back wall (over the painting of the tree) or even from behind the stage (when Titania awakes to behold her lovely ass-headed Bottom).

The second thing I enjoyed about the movement was how it was used to convey character. This is most especially true in the case of Puck (Jay Oliver Yip, also Egeus and Quince of the acting troupe), who bounced along in a way that was entirely different from any “Puck-ish” fairy I had ever seen, and yet who was entirely believable as a supernatural being because of his movement. He also was good at conveying impishness, resentment, and a variety of other emotions through his body, and, as an actor, set himself up as an utterly different character from the uptight Egeus and the blowsy Quince. Titania got hairpins and lost her Hippolyta shawl to convey her change, but Puck pretty much just had to do his transformation with the way he walked. Very nice job!

Have I enthused enough? As we walked out, we were all chattering madly away about what a good time we’d had. One of my friends found Theseus occasionally a bit hard to understand, but no one complained about the use of Japanese – it all seemed to fit in nicely and I didn’t feel like we were losing any of the Shakespeare because of it. And we were talking about the irony of having the different actors play the different characters, and the fun of the fans, and the cool set, and … what a good evening it had been and what a find the theater was and on and on and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d walked out of a Shakespearean play with more energy than when we’d walked in and at the end of a work week, nonetheless. So hats off to Jonathan Man for his brilliant realization of this play and thank you to all of the people who came together to create this really great night out.

*Ultimately the play runs more like 120 minutes as there is an interval, and that 90 minutes is only if you see one of the school productions. Still, I was back in Tooting at about 10:15, which seemed quite reasonable.

**painful due to the utter dissociation with what I’d expect of BCE Greek performance. I mean, please, you can look at all the Greek theater you want and it never reads a bit like Shakespeare’s version of Greece.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, February 13th, 2009. The show continues until February 28th.)

Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008

January 15, 2009

Well, it’s been the busiest show year for me in my entire life. Sadly, I don’t think I can speak to the entirety of London theater even with some 93 shows under my belt (all paid out of pocket, which does impose limits on what I can see), but I think I can at least say I made a good attempt at covering the scene …

Best dance performance:

New York City Ballet’s Jerome Robbins Program (Four Seasons, Moves, The Concert). I am a big fan of the mixed rep performance (because it provides you with a chance to see many different styles in one night), but often a really strong program will be marred by one piece that’s a real dog. But when you take a world class company like City Ballet and pair it with choreography by Robbins – well, this was the kind of night that had me walking out of the theater gasping for breath. Whew!

Best theater I “discovered:”

The Arcola Theatre, way off in the eastern wilds of Dalston, became the theater I most wanted to visit this year. I saw two productions there (Lady from the Sea, The Only Girl in the World) and kept trying to see more. The intimacy of the two spaces within the theater really pleased me; the coffee shop made waiting for the show to open pleasant; the inventiveness of the directors engaged my mind. Why is it that it always seems like when you give people less, they can do more? The biggest problem with this theater: getting home an hour and a half after the end of the show really killed me and kept me from seeing at least two shows. Still, they have another exciting season ahead and I will try to go back often.

Worst seating:

I know the Menier Chocolate Factory has recently started reserved seating (on a “show by show basis,” God knows why), but I actually got scrapes on my thighs from the seats I had for “They’re Playing Our Song,” and my front row seats for “A Little Night Music” put my eye level at about the height of my knees. Do these people never actually watch the shows from the seats or what?

Best cheesy musical:

though my seats were far from ideal, the most fun West end musical this year was absolutely “Zorro.” This panto for adults also wins the prize for best musical to take out of town visitors to see. I expect it will be around for a while, and deservedly so.

Best musical:

the Union Theatre in Southwark knocked my socks off with their “Annie Get Your Gun.” First you’ve got the most awesome music ever (it was just one hit after another), then you take a pile of brilliant actors and pack them in a room so tightly they’re practically sitting in your lap, then you make them sing and dance and ham it up, and there you have the incredibly overstimulating Annie/Gun experience. I’ve only not made it back to that theater because of the Union’s tendency to sell their shows out so far in advance. MUST remember to make reservations earlier from now on!

Best show:

it wasn’t just the hype: for me, “August: Osage County” was a “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” kind of show, with a on the mark script that in the hands of its stellar cast managed to get me through three hours of chatter without once boring me. The characters were sharp and realistically written; their conflicts believable; and, ooh, even if many of the plot points were pulled straight out of the O’Neill bag of tricks, how fresh they seemed. Oddly, both it and “Gesthemane” seemed to be critiques of a world gone rotten through bad politics (this rot seeming to extend to the family), but it’s my belief that “Osage County” will stand the test of time and O’Hare’s show will be forgotten in another year or so. It’s all about great characters and timeless themes, folks, and Tracy Letts’ play has got ’em in spades. (For a long time it looked like it was going to be the theatrical magic of “Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter” that took the prize, but Deanna Dunagan just blew me out of the Lyttelton.)

Worst show:

well, you know, there was the pretentiousness, and then the farting jokes, and then the incoherent plot, and the boringness, and then the pretentiousness, and that’s not even including the overall horror that is what happens when you try to use rhyming couplets as a medium for telling a show. Yes, I am talking about “Fram,” a play so bad that it’s become legendary, a point of reference for badness (the “baddicle”), and the inspiration for my only rhymed review of a show. Does a play have sleeping bags, or dogs, or perhaps a reference to Westminster Abbey, or even a banquet scene? Then, sir, you may be hearing a joke about how it makes me think of Fram. One member of my party had to leave in a rush at intermission due to an impending panic attack; I had to buy drinks for the remaining members of my party (who trickled out at the end of intermission) as an apology for inviting them. Who knows: perhaps some day the National will remount Carrie: The Musical as an apt pairing with this other turkey. God only knows it is good to support new works but sometimes you can take it too far.

Weirdest show:

the “Shen Yu Divine Performing Arts Ensemble Chinese Spectacular gets the prize here. I’m a big fan of Chinese culture, but when you combine cheesy special effects with a religious revival, you get me looking for the doors. I’ve never seen a mainstage performance that was also pushing a political and religious agenda at the same time, and nowhere on the promotional literature did it say that this was the Fa Lun Gung religious cult’s take on China, Chinese culture, and Chinese art – with lots of pro-Fa Lun Gung songs, done in a horrible European style, sandwiched between the dance bits. I prefer to keep my dance separated from my politics, and I don’t like people doing a bait and switch like happened here – telling me I was going to see “art” and instead giving me a bunch of “religion.” I much preferred the Peony Pavillion, which gave me a chance to see a truly classical Chinese performance (and over three nights!).

Best cheap place to eat before a show:

there were a few great entries in this category this year. Paul’s given up its Covent Garden crown in favor of Wahaca; Bangalore Express has the Old Vic and Young nicely covered; but the restaurant I dreamed of was 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, around the corner from the Arcola. It’s the only restaurant that made me look for excuses to be in the neighborhood. Mmm, meat! (And there’s another one around the corner from the Hackney, but I only go there at panto time so that didn’t influence me much.)

Best website for London theatre fans:

there’s a lot of shows out there, and while price is important in determining which to see, it’s even more important (to me) that I not waste my time on turkeys (Thanksgiving is only once a year!). So I thank the West End Whingers not just for being attentive to the many things that can make a good evening better, but also to the horrible, glaring, single thing that can make an evening bad: a completely crap show. They’ve sent me to shows I wouldn’t have considered (Zorro) and done their best to save me from the dogs (Gone With The Wind – The Musical! – saved! Fram – oops), all while doing so with a writing style that keeps me entertained consistently (more than I can say for many of the shows they’ve seen). They even inspired me to do my own blog. Thanks, Phil and Andrew!

Best website for London theatre deals:

of all of the things people seem interested in reading about on this site, it’s my post on the 12 best ways to get cheap theater tickets in London that keeps the punters coming. So I’ve started adding more deals to the site as I see them come through. That said, for me personally, has done the most to make it possible for ME to see as many shows as I do. I don’t have an unlimited budget, and when times are tight, I know I can pop over to their site with a good chance of being able to find something for £10-£15. I can’t always find the show I want when I want it, and I’m occasionally going to get not very good seats, but when the option is not going at all … to me, it’s more important to have been there and seen most of it than to have not been able to go at all. Thanks, – and for the rest of you people who keep trying to flog your crappy, overpriced scalper seats on my site – buzz off!

Review – Now or Later – Royal Court Jerwood

October 28, 2008

Just saw a fantastic play at the Royal Court Jerwood, Now or Later by Christopher Shinn – a play which is receiving a world premiere at this venue (or did a month ago). Wow! When do new plays ever hit the ground this topical and this good? It’s set on election night in America, where the Democratic candidate’s son is holed up in his hotel room watching election results with his best college buddy. As the results come in, news of a scandal is unfolding – pictures of the son dressed as Mohammed at a campus party are showing up on the internet. Will he apologize for being offensive? Will he stand up for his right for political expression? Will his dad ever actually talk to him? Will anyone treat him like he’s something other than a tool his parents use to further his father’s political career?

I had never been to the Royal Court before (the plush seats reminded me of sitting in my dad’s ’69 Pontiac Bonneville, if it had had a brown interior instead of a white one), and starting off our relationship with this play was really just setting up a standard I can only hope the Jerwood can maintain. Eddie Redmayne (as John Junior) was very good, though he had a bit of a strange American accent and seemed to be playing up the mental instability a bit. Nancy Crane, as mom, really had the plasticky-fakeness of politicians down straight. John Senior (Matthew Marsh) seemed to be trying to hard to come off as a “type” (the way he was wiggling his hand by his side just seemed like something he’d seen on TV but not managed to make seem natural for his character), but as he slid into his interaction with John Junior the two of them were positively electrifying, rather like watching the climactic scene of Frost/Nixon. Never have 75 minutes gone by so fast.

I was referred to this by the WestEnd Whingers (really just the best theater blog out there if you’re looking for hot tips for shows to see, or warnings for turkeys), and I am really grateful to them for pointing me in the very, very right direction. Its brevity made it a play that was easy to squeeze into a weekday evening, yet good enough that it managed to lighten my mood after a rather crummy day at work. It’s been extended to November 1st, though tickets are a bit hard to get – try SeeTickets as the venue has almost no availability. It’s your last chance – see it while it’s hot!