Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead Theatre’

Review – Chariots of Fire – Hampstead Theater

May 24, 2012

I have a real thing for new writing. This, however, doesn’t extend to new plays that are adaptations of movies. But when pcchan1981 invited me to catch Chariots of Fire at the Hampstead Theater, I thought, why not? The script is by Mike Bartlett, and I think he’s pretty decent. But I became a bit worried when a West End transfer was announced before the show’s opening. What made them so sure of the show’s success? Did this have … something to do with the Olympics? Hmmm.

Three months later it was finally time for the show. I had seen the movie but, as I saw it back when it was new most of the plot details had long ago slid from my brain. I remembered that one of the characters was Jewish, and that the plot had something to do with running in the Olympics. But everything else was pretty much gone. To me, it meant I was approaching the show in a close to ideal fashion, as, other than being pretty sure of the ending, I had few preconceptions about what was going to happen and no expectation of a performance “like the guy in the film.” (And thank God I hadn’t read the Hampstead website, which describes the show as “the theatrical event of our Olympic year.” Those claims inevitably lead to disappointment. Can people just say, “We think our show is good, we do hope you’ll like it?”)

The inside of the theater had been set up like a race track, with a circular running level separating the stalls seats from the balcony and upper balcony area, and a rotating area in the middle that could either just have the edge rotating or the whole thing going at once. This was obviously very useful for a play in which a lot of action centers on racing, and they made good use of it, not just running on the stationary track but cutting across the middle to do figure eights; they also raced on the small rotating edge of the middle section. Unsurprising, with all of this running, the cast of this show was looking awfully fit; I suspect some folks might find it worth seeing for that alone.

This was not enough for me. I was looking for drama and personal evolution: I got one note characters and lots of running. Real drama came during the British Olympics Committee grilling scene, when they try to force someone to run against their religious beliefs; but nothing else really engaged me at that level. I found joy when one of the runners practiced hurdles with glasses of fine champagne balanced on the posts; I was gleeful at the frequent use of Gilbert and Sullivan (did Cambridge students really all do Am Dram?). Yet I cared for nobody on stage, because they didn’t seem real, not a one of them; they were actors portraying actors portraying some writer’s version of real people as made interesting enough to film. Just what was I supposed to care about?

As I was struggling to keep engaged during the second act, the British team made it to France for the Olympics, and suddenly it was five rings projected on the floor and the Olympic flag on the wall. In my mind, the IOC licensing committee (LOCOG?) suddenly swooped in and confiscated all of the props and declared the play closed as they hadn’t received official permission to use their copyrighted stuff (at exorbitant fees). But then I realized … the whole reason for this play’s existence is to ride on those Olympic coattails, and take advantage of the Olympics as a marketing phenomenon. It was never a play aimed at me, a hardcore theater fan who sees an average of three shows a week. Taking advantage of Olympics fever is why this play was written, why it is transferring, and why it uses the horribly, gratingly inappropriate Vangelis music despite the fact it says THIS WAS WRITTEN IN 1981 and ruins the feeling of the early 20s they otherwise have tried so hard to create on stage. This play was written to make a buck, not to be a good show.

If you have to, you can probably make it through this play. But I promise you, after this summer is over this thing will never see the light of a serious stage again.

(This review is for a performance that took place on May 21st, 2012. It continues at the Hampstead until June 16th, and if you’re going to see it do it before it transfers. There are plenty of seats available still and it will cost you much more like what it is worth rather than what they are going to want you to play.)

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Review – Pocket Comedy “Comedy of Errors” – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

September 28, 2011

After seeing the amazing Richard the Third that Propeller did this summer at the Hampstead Theater, I’ve been kicking myself for not making it to Comedy of Errors, the other half of their dual bill season. I was so impressed by R3 that I considered trying to see C of E somewhere on the tail end of the tour but just couldn’t make it work (financially or schedulewise). However, it appeared the theater gods were going to smile on me as Propeller returned just a few months later with a “Pocket Comedy” version of Comedy of Errors, the whole play in one hour (and once again at Hampstead Theater).

However, on looking at it, the schedule was a bit strange and unworkable. Shows at one P.M.? On a weekeday? And further shows at TEN A.M.? Just what in the world was this about? Don’t tell me it was … aimed for the kiddie audience?

Alas, so it was, a house full of eight and twelve year olds who, while warned about use of cellphones, had no qualms about crackling candy, talking to each other fairly loudly (“BUT THEY JUST MET. HOW CAN THEY BE GETTING MARRIED?”), and putting their feet on the backs of the chairs in front of them (and let’s not mention the hysterical nervous laughter over scenes given gay overtones by the same-gender casting). I’m afraid this meant that I missed many lines (and some meaning) during the show. I also found myself, in this audience, uncomfortable with the over-acted, sexually oriented jokes, such as when a crack was made about marital problems (and the items each person carried drooped) and again later when a line about trimming someone’s beard was accompanied by actors mimed scissoring their crotches.

We did get through most of the salient plot points in this sixty minutes Shakesaganza, but while there was a lot of buffoonery and slapstick, to be honest I just never really got all that into it. I wanted genius, I wanted my world to be turned upside down, I didn’t really want Curly Larry and Moe’s laffs-a-minute classical theater. The performers did a great job of keeping their characters straight (given that they were all at a minimum double-cast), but … even in his comedies I think Shakespeare goes just a little bit deeper than this. Maybe I wanted too much, maybe my expectations were too high, but for me it just didn’t deliver. I’ll hope that some day I can catch Propeller’s full-length version of this show, but I have to report that this stripped-back performance, while adequate, was entirely missable.

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, September 26th, 2011. It continues at Hampstead Theater through October 1st.)

Review – Ecstasy – Duchess Theatre (transfer from Hampstead Theatre)

May 18, 2011

So you’re stuck at a party with people you don’t really like, only you can’t leave without causing a big scene … so there you sit … only you’re actually at a theater and you’ve paid for this experience. What do you do?

Nearly a year to a day and, despite the parallel misery of watching an overly long onstage party with alcoholics, what a difference between my trip to Ingredient X at the Royal Court and Mike Leigh’s ironically named Ecstasy in its West End transfer. I decided to buy tickets late rather than early (during the Hampstead run) as there was a lot of Twitter chatter about how good it was; and as I like Mike Leigh as a film director I really wanted to see what he’d do with a live cast. A Lastminute.com hookup for £20 weekday stalls seats and we were in!

Unsurprisingly (if you know Leigh), this play meanders and seems to not really be bothering either with plot or character “development,” though its characters are so pitch-perfect it’s difficult to imagine them actually having real lives off of the stage. The play takes place in the tiny two-room Kilburn flat of Jean (the rather too-pretty Siân Brooke), who keeps booze in the wardrobe, heats the bedroom with an ineffective tiny radiator (Jean says to Len, “Don’t worry about turning off the heater, let it go until the meter runs out ….” leaving her to wake up in darkness and cold), and uses a shared toliet in the hall. When guests come to visit her, their options are the chair next to the table the TV sits on, the one armchair, or the bed. It’s crowded, crowded, crowded, a far more effective depiction of poverty than the National managed in its expansive set for Men Shall Weep. Despite her old friend Len (Craig Parkinson) kindly saying that it is tidy and compact, to me it seemed a soul-killing environment. Life in London at the bottom of the economic ladder – as the working poor – never seemed so real.

To lighten this up, there’s no “double bed and a stalwart lover,” it’s a broken bed and wanna-be rapist (Daniel Coonan as Roy) and the shiver of gin drunk alone for company when he leaves to go back to his wife. Jean’s life is orderly but basically a pile of misery; even the sex is the complete opposite of the “Ecstasy” of the title. She has a friend, Dawn (the shimmering Sinead Matthews, who could have lit all of the smoked cigarettes with her own energy), who comes over to cheer her up with tales of her screwed up children and gifts of the clothes she’s stolen for Jean. The two of them spend all of the second act with Dawn’s husband Mick and said friend Len, drinking endlessly, rehashing what were somehow their glory days, dancing to Elvis, and having a little singalonga. And is all of this convivial?

No. It is depressing. These people are probably barely 30, and their lives seem like they’re already over. Their socializing with each other seems a desperate attempt to drink away their ability to face up to their the present. With exception of the key question of where the next booze-up is going to happen, they don’t really talk about the future; and why would they?

It’s hard to believe the interminable second act could be billed as a party scene; it all seemed like a long waiting game, either for the rapist to return, the soup to boil, the taxi to show up, or Dawn to wake up after she passes out on Jean’s bed. Mostly it seemed like drinking for the purpose of making the wretched minutes that cause each day to pass so slowly have some sort of purpose; that is, of getting drunk. Me, I felt trapped and frustrated, stuck in a tiny room with people who were fighting to find something to say to each other while the finished their drinks. When, I wondered, would they get as bored as I was? And while we finally had a tiny reveal from Jean, pretty much nothing does happen in this play at all. My suspicion is that we could stay with this group of people for years with nothing ever really changing – thank God after two hours and forty five minutes we at least got to walk away from them and get on with our real lives.

Overall, I have to admire the perfection of dialogue, characterization, and staging of this play – everything really is pitch-perfect. But I have to question the point of it as a work of theater. It has all the makings of something that is going somewhere but then doesn’t. While I can admire the acting and directing skill, there is still that boredom factor – this show outstayed its welcome 30 minutes before it ended, and I can’t really forgive it for this. There’s a lot of great about Ecstasy, but at its core it’s a flawed play. I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t advice it for people who want structure in their shows. Frankly, you could get much the same at many a bar – drunks going on about nothing while you wonder just why it was you bothered going in the first place.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, May 16th, 2011. It continues through May 28th. It’s probably actually really good so if you like top notch acting and can live through the boredom you should go.)

Review – Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” – Richmond Theatre (then Hampstead)

June 4, 2010

Headlong and Curve Theater have created a retelling of Oscar Wilde’s Salome that seems oh-so-very au courant and came to the Richmond Theatre for a four-day visit at the end of May, 2010, with the promise of more touring and an extended stay at the Hampstead Theatre (June 22-July 17th). Thanks to membership in the Twespians theater club, I had an offer not just for free tickets (unsure if they needed to paper the house or promote the show) but also for free wine before the show. Well, Richmond is quite out of my normal stomping grounds, but I’ve wanted to see this piece of Oscar Wilde’s performed for ages, as I am a fan of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations and I enjoyed the rather painfully over the top Alla Nazimova silent film version last year. And there was the free wine. How better to get into the spirit of this incarnation of fin-de-siecle decadence than liquored to the gills, unless perhaps I was to watch it dressed in velvet and draped in pearls?

Thank God I’d left my velvet and pearls behind, for this show was as far from any exhilarating tribute to excess as it were possible to imagine – while wholly needing the lubrication of several stiff drinks. We are given the court of Herod, in which the inhabitants supposedly have every luxury – but it is presented as a sort of Iraqi oil dump, with camo-fatigued soldiers looking rough and patrolling around with an excess of energy. The set, a black square covered in ground up tire rubber, with a few pools of black liquid on the edges and towering metal structures behind, certainly created a very modern atmosphere, but I found it completely contrary to anything implied in the text and, to be honest, all rather a bit too in love with itself. Yes, the play can be seen as some sort of rant against the powers of privilege, a screed against corruption, but in this setting, in which all poetry has been stripped away, Wilde’s words had a difficult battle to fight.

For characters and plot, we have a soldier (Sam Donovan) who has an unhealthy attraction to teen beauty Salome (Zawe Ashton), the step-daughter of Herod (Con O’Neill). Herod, meanwhile, has developed his own unhealthy attraction to Salome, which is making her mother, Herodias (Jaye Griffiths) understandably uncomfortable. Salome, utterly stuck on herself, develops her own crush: on John the Baptist (Iokanaan, played by Seun Shote), who is Herod’s prisoner. The source of her attraction is somewhat obvious: he’s the only man who is not obsessed with Salome; in fact, he repudiates her rudely (and yet poetically). And with his ramblings about whores and punishment and saviors, well, he’s just a little bit on the nutso and possibly dangerous side: perfect for a girl who’s been living perfectly sheltered in a hotbed of intrigue. Love the man her powerful “daddy” is afraid of? Perfect!

Wilde’s job is to make this story, to which we all know the ending, intriguing. Iokanaan must seem powerful and intelligent, yet manage to exert attraction even though he’s been living in a cell below the ground; Herod must seem both despotic and weak, lustful and yet frightened, so that he can hold out against Salome’s demands. In some ways, it’s like a Greek play in which we all know the plot and the playwright’s job is to ratchet up the tension without making it descend into farce. The focus on Salome and her power over others is probably the most difficult dramatic hurdle; Wilde attacks this by building up Salome’s attractiveness with lush descriptions (most of which come from the soldiers and are a delight to the ears) but also by showing every character being impacted by her. I bought into this in a way I never had with a film or the opera; Wilde’s words and setting made me see the captivation she creates be due to her being a free spirit – but also because she is a pearl in a cesspit of corruption, pure if only for seeking nothing but her own pleasure. With Iokanaan close to a force of nature, and Herod a man both oozing with power and yet afraid of his own shadow, the stage is well set for the inevitable.

In her horrid gold jumpsuit, Zawe Ashton seems unlikely to convince as this creature “with feet like doves,” but I believed in her performance as an utterly self-centered teen with no concept of consequences, only caring for instant gratification, the sun around which lesser celestial bodies fade into insignificance. She even handled the “dance of Salome” well – she seemed very much the modern, celebrity-obsessed girl, but with a bizarre belief in the value of exposing bits of her body to people in order to get them to do what she wanted. I actually found it hard to buy that anyone could go against the order of a direct boss in exchange for a view of nubile torso – but in the cooked up atmosphere of soldiers on duty in the desert, it kind of made sense.

Overall, though, I found this production depressing and as unsexy as can be. I wasn’t revolted by Salome making out with a bleeding, decapitated head; I was revolted by the ugliness of the show. Wilde has Herod talking of beautiful white peacocks with gilded beaks, of a pearl necklace that is like moons chained in threads of silver, and all of these beautiful words, every word of praise for Salome herself, has the life sucked out of it by the bleak set and the drab costumes. We hear them speak of luxury but see nothing but privation. Is our world not already coated in filth, that we should need to see Herodias stepping in a puddle of scum on stage?

In a week in which I saw three shows, this was perhaps the best; but only because it provided a singular chance to hear the worlds of Oscar Wilde spoken on stage (and the others were the abyssmal Ingredient X and bad-unto-farce Paradise Lost). A live production of Salome this was but it’s hard to say that this show brought Wilde’s words to life as this production did everything it could to ground their power and beauty into the ground like a cigarette butt. I suspect Jamie Lloyd is pleased with how he “updated” it and made it relevant to modern audiences, but to me the production reeked of trendiness and a lack of faith in the script. Given that this show is running through a lovely summer, I can only advise you to take a lovely picnic and a few friends and read it to each other outside, in a field of flowers, where you can laugh and laze and enjoy yourself. Be sure to bring some cold white wine, and when you think about how fleeting life’s pleasures are, raise a glass to Salome and to poor Oscar, then be grateful you’re not inside watching this horrible show.

(This review is for a performance that took place at Richmond Theater on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010. Salome will continue to tour through the end of June, hitting the Oxford Playhouse, the Northern Stage, and Theater Royal Brighton before settling down for a run at the Hampstead. Don’t say you weren’t warned. For other opinions, please see There Ought to be Clowns and of course the compendium at UpTheWestEnd.com, which should grow as the majors review this play.)

Review – Dunsinane – Royal Shakespeare Company at Hampstead Theatre

March 7, 2010

Dunsinane, presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Hampstead Theatre, had all of the benefits a good budget and well-trained company can bring to the stage with all of the risks of a new script. In this case, the risk was somewhat mitigated by a fairly established playwright (David Greig) working within the context of some extremely well-known Shakespeare (Macbeth); the question than became, could it live up to its source of inspiration? Might it even be another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?

What it managed to be was competent and yet uninspiring, a good window into Scottish culture with a nice tie-in to current issues that had occasionally beautiful language. First to appear of the main characters was “The Boy Soldier” (usually called “Boy,” played Sam Swann), who got most of the poetical text (frequently describing the landscape of Scotland) and seemed like he might have come out of Black Watch or some other play set in a modern war – basically an innocent providing a grunts-eye view of conflict. This character was the most unlike anything in the Shakespeare, as instead of operating in the world of royalty and commanders he was stuck in the mud, as far from master of his destiny as one could be. Another new character was “Gruach” (Siobhan Redmond) – well, actually, she was meant to be Lady Macbeth but was completely unlike the character of the first play. She was far more regal and, in my opinion, far more Scottish; less hateful, more nuanced, and more believable, if still ultimately Machiavellian. Redmond played her wearing the world’s worst wig and a dress straight out of a Millais painting, but still was convincing – mostly. At times she sounded heavy and forced, as if she was reading from a ballad.

Most interesting of the characters was red-headed King Malcolm (Brian Ferguson), who was a king unlike any other I’ve seen on stage; seriously concerned with staying in power, weak but thoroughly aware of the cultural milieu in which he was placed and attempting very actively to make the best of it – through wine and wenching. His explanation of his theory of rule was highly unique. I found him reminding me of the Shah of Iran – placed in power from the outside but very interested in keeping control.

Finally, we have Siward (Jonny Phillips), the commander who “just wants to make things right.” He has all of the power Malcolm wants, but no desire to rule; he wants to make Scotland a peaceful country, but because he’s utterly ignorant of Scottish history and culture, he will not be able to succeed. To me, he really seemed to represent the US ambitions in Iraq – dreaming of making a better world for its own sake, but wrecking the country, the people, and himself.

Despite these strong characters and the high degree of competence with which all roles were performed, Dunsinane never managed to get anywhere near the level of a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or even a Crucible. Ultimately, I think it will be a bit of a historical curiosity, but unlikely to be revived other than by high schools or Shakespearean societies, and without the top-drawer talent RSC was able to provide, its weak bones will show themselves all too clearly.

(Dusinane ended its run at the Hampstead Theatre on March 6th, 2010. This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 5th. For another tardy review, see SansTaste.

Review: “Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall” – Hampstead Theatre

August 20, 2009

My best friend W is a big Spike Milligan fan, and after reading the positive review of this show in the Metro (and seeing tickets could be had for a mere 15 quid), I was up and raring to go to the great wild north, wherein the mysterious and previously unvisited venue called the Hampstead Theater could be found. I was going to be fresh off of a week in Greece, but no matter, I was eager to plunge back into a cold, dark room while the English summer continued weakly attempting to throw a few rays of sunshine at us.

Per W, this show is pretty much thoroughly lifted from Milligan’s war memoirs (which he’s read ten times), with lots of recognizable bits for the faithful to enjoy. And the theater seemed packed with said faithful – lots of the 50 through 70+ year old set had come out for a show which was by someone I’m guessing they were familiar with (me, as an American, less so, and really only through W) as well as a topic they related to (more or less). In fact, the whole thing had the air of a successful venture (it looked sold out from where we sat) for a very community-based theater.

I, however, had only the shows actual merits to go on, and I read it as a pretty light series of sketches held together with a fair bit of good music. The “story,” as such (there’s not much to it), is about Milligan’s WWII experience, from being drafted to fighting (or, rather, waiting) in North Africa to finally going to Italy and then (I think) Berlin. He mostly stays with his small and tight unit, all of whom play instruments (not sure if this was for real or not – he was a gunner, but was he also an entertainer?). Between recollections of trying to stave off boredom while standing in a hole and while hanging out in the bunkroom, the band perform various comic songs and do skits. It kind of read to me like a base-generated entertainment to raise morale, but I wasn’t sure if it actually was based on his experiences or just something they came up with to fill the time between the actual memoir bits.

Overall, I enjoyed this show for what it was – a lighthearted and highly musical rendition of one man’s experience in the war. I liked it more for just how very common I felt like his experience was – it was just one soldier among thousands (or even millions), though he and his unit appeared to have much better luck than a lot of other ones. However, Milligan’s actual smart-alecky cracks were distracting to me – I found it hard to believe a guy could spend four years sounding like he walked off the set of a situation comedy. Still, the music was good, the physical comedy was fun to watch, and the performers were both impressive singers and musicians. I’d recommend it if you were looking for a fun night out – with nearly a total lack of the tragedy you might expect for a play set during a war.

(“Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall” continues at the Hampstead Theater through Saturday, August 22nd, 2009. This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, August 17th.)