Posts Tagged ‘Imelda Staunton’

Review – Follies – National Theater

September 3, 2017

Imagine going into an attic, and finding a dusty Faberge egg. You open it, and inside is a music box, two keys broken. You wind it up and it starts playing pretty music while little jeweled characters whirl around in the semi-darkness. This is Follies. The story concerns a reunion of old showgirls in a crumbling Broadway theater; they reminisce about the old times, do some numbers in the guise of reliving memories, and perform a few things together as their current selves while the shadow of their past mirror them in the wings and disintegrating dressing rooms. Eventually the story focuses on two couples, Sally and Buddy Plummer (Imelda Staunton and Peter Forbes) and Phyllis and Benjamin Stone (Janie Dee and Philip Quast), whose lives have not quite matched the hopes they had back when the girls were on stage and the boys were wooing them. This leads to an entire suite of “The Follies” of these four people … which has a total “jumped the shark” feel to it, but hey, it’s a musical, when do these things make sense? If Sondheim was tired of writing songs in the style of old vaudeville numbers and wanted to do more emotional reveals, that suited me fine. And the dance numbers from this section were just completely nuts – probably closer to what an actual review would have been like back in the day but something I’d really never seen on stage – only in the movies.
Are you reading this to decide whether or not to go? Then open a new tab and just get yourself some tickets now, because if you love musicals of the Sondheim variety, then you probably already knew you had to go and just wanted confirmation. I’m doing that. You’re confirmed. And remember the National releases rush seats every Friday for the next week’s show for 20 quid – so if it’s sold out by the time you read this, it’s not in fact too late – you just need to jump on the ticket buying next Friday. (And please remember it’s 2:10 no interval so save your wine for after the show.)

To me, the genius of this production is doing this show in London, where assembling some ten or so top shelf actresses who are out of the ingenue era is as easy as grabbing a handful of sweeties out of a candy barrel, and we, the audience, come out winners (while the actresses get some damned fine material to work with). Our cornucopia of theatrical riches spills out on stage, greatly enhanced by the National’s shameless expediture on brilliant costumes for the “young” versions of the various actresses – Miss 1930, Miss 1925, et cetera – which we get to sit and enjoy as they glimmer and shimmy behind or alongside their modern (1971) counterparts.

The various conceits – of having musical numbers done from this classic era of stage, of shifting the story between the “girls” and the two couples, of having all of the characters represented by both their modern and their much younger selves – does so much to structure this show that it feels like it teeters of the edge of having just gone too far but ends up feeling masterful. We are just as much in the hands of a person who is on top of their game as I was earlier this year at The Ferryman. And the four leads were … well, actually, I do have a bit of a beef, because although I came to see Imelda Staunton, I felt that as Sally Plummer she was too one note. Sure, the character is a bit unhinged, and yeah Ms Staunton can dance and sing, but … I thought there were more depths to be found, somewhere, especially by such a skilled actress as Staunton. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe Sally was just written that way. But as consolation we have the magnificent “Losing My Mind” … and Janie Dee’s “Could I Leave You” … and, my God, just SO MANY GOOD SONGS.

I know. I’m just a blogger. I’ve let you down. There are better words I could use to describe this show. But mind this: I have already bought a ticket to go back. And when I sat there watching it, goosebumps raced over my skin, and I thought, “My God, this is it, an honest to God five star show, perfection incarnate, and I am here seeing it at the National and people will be talking about this show for years.” I know I will.

(This review is of a preview performance that too place on August 30th, 2017. Follies is running through January 3rd, 2018.)


Mini-review – Gypsy – Imelda Staunton at the Savoy Theater

April 29, 2015

I’m an Imelda Staunton fan, so I’d already had a pair of tickets for this show in my hot little hand (courtesy of Santa Claus) for some time before the reviews for the Savoy transfer came through (I’m a fan but not enough to go to Chichester). But BOY the West End Whingers were just bubbling all over themselves about this one (“Everything’s coming up roses .. and daffodils!”) and I knew any moment now “it’s gonna be my turn” and I couldn’t wait. I’d only ever seen Bette Midler’s version (on TV) and I really, really was hoping for something amazing.

And, really, that’s what I got. The stage was frequently teeny tiny, a little rotating flip capturing a sideways glance of where things were happening .. but then it opened up in the horrible scenes set in old vaudeville houses. I started off fighting it a bit – the young Baby June was grating (and tinnily miked) and I was glad to see the end of the child actor scenes even though they did get progressively camper as the evening went on.

Songwise, it’s almost unfair to have so many standards jammed in one show – you’re not getting that with modern musicals, that’s for sure – and the emotional ride of Rose’s relationship with the manager Herbie (Peter Davison), and the heartbreak and disappointment when she breaks her last promise to him … Gypsy herself (Lara Pulver) in the shadows for most of the evening, because, really the show isn’t about her anyway … I saw that this time, the fact that I thought it _was_ about her was my mistake, she was just the cherry on top of the cake, but not the cake at all. And oh, the brilliant laughs of the old strippers in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick …” so funny! By this time we were all just riding the wave of the story, the inevitability of Gypsy’s “fall,” which suddenly was (again) about her mother, the most horrible relationship ever, and as the stage finally utterly transformed itself for Mama Rose’s last big number, like something right out of the movie version of Chicago, so big you almost couldn’t believe it was on stage, there was little Imelda belting it out, surrounded by glittering lights … breaking our hearts. It wasn’t the end of the show, but we jumped out of out seats and applauded. It was all just so intense. Everything came up roses, roses covered with thorns, and we (and she) held on to them tight, the blood pouring down and the smile fixed on her face. My God, what a night. I nearly immediately broke all of my promises to stick to cheaper seats and went and got a pair of tickets in the front row so I could see it again but this time from a place where I could see the sweat beading on their faces as every single actor busted their chops to make it awesome for us. Yes, it was that good. Don’t miss it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, April 16th, 2015. It’s on until October.)

Review – Orton – a new musical at Above the Stag

April 6, 2014

I hadn’t really heard about Joe Orton before moving to the UK, although I had seen Prick Up Your Ears when it was released (for me, had a surprise ending – I knew that little). It was the incredible production of Entertaining Mr Sloan I saw at Trafalgar Studios (with Imelda Staunton hysterically unforgettable in the negligee scene) that really raised Orton’s profile in my mind; but What the Butler Saw cemented it, because it had the same completely-pushing-the-boundaries humor matched with an incredible tension. I’ve read a bit about him since I saw Sloane but still not much, so I was in a good place to see a musical about the life of Joe Orton without having a lot of preconceived notions. I also now have a much better idea of what England was like during the period he lived. I am also a fan of new theater, especially new musicals, and I thought it was great that the Above the Stag theater was not just hosting its premiere, but involved in producing it. It seemed the perfect venue for this show, and the packed house seemed very excited to be there.

While I can’t be sure of the “truthiness” of Orton‘s narrative, I found the emotional narrative believable and made for compelling theater. (I was sitting outside at the interval excited about going back in.) You sensed the squirreliness and isolation of Halliwell (Andrew Rowney) at the very beginning, his anxiousness to have a sexy young thing like Orton as his partner and his strong discomfort at his position as a social outsider. Meanwhile Orton (Richard Dawes) moved convincingly from “fresh out of Leicester” closet case to picking up guys everywhere he could city boy. I was never entirely sure of what he saw in Halliwell, but throughout, as Orton continued to be more successful with his sex life as well as his art, I felt entirely reassured by his connection to Halliwell, who came off not as a muse but as a kind of co-conspirator in art.

Swinging Sixties London was nicely evoked by the songs and the musical numbers, from I Don’t Think I Know One (about people willing to be amused at the characters in Orton’s plays while claiming not to know people like that – not surprising as they probably were keeping their behavior very private) to the sexual revolution captured with real belly laughs in Sex in the Suburbs. Sex was, appropriately enough, front and center for a lot of the musical number – and man, they were pretty damned hot. Richard Silver and Sean J Hume even managed to make the gay sex scenes witty (in Form an Orderly Line) – I can’t help but think Orton would have approved!

While the songwriting wasn’t Kander and Ebb, still, I think this was one of the best new musicals I’ve seen in a few years – tuneful songs, a cast with pipes (Valerie Cutko showing the pups how it’s done), and an emotional arc that pulled you right in. I felt lucky to have a chance to see it in an intimate house like the Stag – it could easily be moving to bigger venues soon.

(This review is for a permiere performance that took place on Friday, April 4th, 2014. It continues through May 4th.)


Review – Good People – Hampstead Theater

March 3, 2014

It’s official: London has its first five star production of 2014* … and it’s a comedy. Good People at the Hampstead Theater had me guffawing and gasping nearly from the start straight through to its trim finish shortly before 10 PM. I was actually eager and excited to come back after the interval! When was the last time that happened!

I did my best to do no research whatsoever about this show before I went in, wanting to experience it completely raw – so I was very surprised to find out this show was a very modern play set in America (I finally deduced it to be Boston, a city where a really poor white, urban population is most decidedly in existence – Good Will Hunting twenty years later). The lead character is Margie (Imelda Staunton), a forties-ish mom taking care of a mentally handicapped daughter as best she can on a cashier’s income. Her friends – as long as cash is left out of the equations – are Jean (Lorraine Ashbourne) and Dottie (June Watson), each with their own list of deadbeat relatives, whom they discuss over coffee and bingo. When Margaret finds out her old boyfriend Mike has moved back to town – and he’s now a doctor – we’re set up for a clash of titans, a veritable Look Who’s Coming to Dinner meets Abigail’s Party.

The clash between Margie and Dr. Mike is pretty colossal. People here in the UK are obsessed with class, but us Americans live in ignorance of it, because all that matters is money. And this play is about how you can “take the girl out of the trailer park but you can’t take the trailer park out of the girl” as these two old friends from “Soufie” meet up across the giant gap that is their income divide. But what is even more wrenching seeing how much Dr Mike has failed to accept about his past … he’s fit into the rich culture he’s become a part of that there’s not a single person who really understands what he’s like under the skin. Except, really, Margie.

The careful depictions of how real people treat each other, showing off both their humanity and their selfishness, is what makes Good People both hysterically funny and nearly tearfully tragic. Poor people in America are working, are taking care of their kids, and are living one paycheck away from the streets. Some of them don’t make it; the discussion about Cookie, a woman who slides into homelessness after her husband leaves her, is just too telling in the way the poor woman accept that this is just something that happens.

Meanwhile we’ve got Dr Mike living it up in a world of fancy cheeses he can’t appreciate and a beautiful wife who’s assimilated far better into upper class American life as an African-American (she was, after all, born into it) than Mike ever will. He’s convinced that he’s earned it all: Margaret’s wretched life is, in his mind, because of her choices. The scene in which they argue this point … which had me on the edge of my chair … captures so much about why rich people in America … and let’s be honest, the UK … feel like they deserve what they’ve got and poor people got what they deserved.

At the end, I had laughed my head off but was holding back the tears because of an unexpected display of decency. I don’t want to say much more, but just trust me: this play was worth every penny I paid for the ticket, and if you’re lucky enough to get in, even for the top price of £32, you will consider both the money and the time well-spent. Oh, and if you don’t get in, might you consider a cash donation to a food bank? It’s what Good People should do.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on February 27th, 2014. It continues through April 5th.)

*I’m not counting Shakespeare. Shakespeare isn’t included anymore.


Review – Circle Mirror Transformation – Royal Court at a real community center near Haggerston

July 19, 2013

If you see as many plays as I do, you may have to admit you have certain … weaknesses. It might be for a theater, a performer, a director, or something more obscure such as “plays with puppets” or “plays written with community involvement” (both of which are horrors for some and thus must be pleasures for others). I’m soft for site specific plays, Ibsen, Pinter, new plays, and, um, Imelda Staunton.

I’m sorry! It’s really embarrassing to me because I am really anti-celebrity (especially as a gimmicky way of getting punters to buy tickets) but … well, I think she’s become MORE famous since I’ve developed my man-crush on her, and the only reason it even exists is because SHE’S AWESOME ON STAGE. But, see, the embarrassment comes in because I first saw her in a movie, Vera Drake, and she blew me away. And then WOW I moved to London where WOW Staunton could be seen IN A PLAY which I immediately booked tickets to (There Came a Gypsy Riding at the Almeida – this was before this blog existed but I’ve migrated my review). Then she returned in Entertaining Mr Sloane and was so funny I nearly peed myself laughing. And she sings (Sweeney Todd)! So, in short, I consider my fannishness towards La Staunton COMPLETELY reasonable given that she’s, basically, awesome in everything. (But it’s still embarrassing given that most people recognize her from a trashy movie series of the sort that tends to send non-theater aficionados to the box office.)

Anyway, without her, I might not have been tempted to see Circle Mirror Transformation. Plot: a bunch of people in a small town in Vermont sign up to take an acting class, with surprising results. Reality: IT IS IN AN ACTUAL COMMUNITY CENTER NEARLY 90 MINUTES FROM MY HOUSE AND IT WAS 32 DEGREES OUTSIDE AND THE BUILDING WAS NOT AIRCONDITIONED. And the plot sounded cringetastic in the worst possible way. And yet I called the box office in the hopes there might be a return ticket for the matinee DURING THE ROASTINGEST PART OF THE DAY because 1) the show was sold out yet I was ever hopeful 2) I still wanted to go 3) I don’t have a job so weekday matinees are possible 4) I was hearing good things about it. And yes there was a ticket and YAY off I went to the darkest depths of Dalston.

Surprisingly, I’d actually been to the venue before – it was the home of Retz’ The Trial, but it was the main cafe area that had been set up as a theater, with bleachers rising up in front of a flat, gym-like floor illuminated by overhead fluorescents. With a piano in the back and various junk scattered on the sides, it required no effort at all to make it a community center in my mind! The staff was kindly handing out glasses of water, and we were promised (as we sat in the 32 degree minimum building!) that if we wanted to leave at any point, they would break with normal polity and let us back in at an appropriate time – indeed, they were willing to refund us our money now if we didn’t feel like we could make it through. I whipped my fan out of my bag (thinking ahead!), tucked the bottle of water at my feet, and settled in for the duration – two hours straight through.

I think it was a testament to both the high quality of the acting – all around, not just of one person – that not a single person left the show at any point during this sweltering afternoon. Watching the “learn how to think like an actor” exercises was somewhat painful at time – and included long, uncomfortable (and very, very natural) pauses – but as we worked through the various scenes (most quite short) and we got to know the characters and they got to know each other – well, something very believable happened, and we were watching an acting class with a bunch of bored/lonely/untalented people all taking it for their own reasons, and we were very interested in what was going on, and where it was going.

And then it was the last night of class, and people were saying their goodbyes, and people had changed, and the lights came up and we were applauding, and, wow, so maybe there were a few too many breathing scenes or maybe too many “set people up as furniture” scenes, but it had made the experience come alive. And it was over, for them and for us, and we were walking out into the cooling evening, and I thought, my God, it was actually totally worth it. And Imelda Staunton is still awesome, but so was everyone else, and I wanted to hug all of my fellow theater goers, because it had really made me feel like I was back in America and hugging is just what you do after a group experience like that.

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Wednesday, July 16, 2013. It is sold out but tickets become available sporadically on the Royal Court Website, and it’s absolutely worthwhile to call and check on returns. In addition, the person at the box office said no one on their wait list had yet been turned away, so if you’re reading this and wondering if you should roll the dice and go queue, Simon says “yes.” The last day is August 3rd. Now together, everybody: breathe, and slowly count to ten, one at a time.)


Review – Entertaining Mr. Sloane – Trafalgar Studios

January 28, 2009

Last night I went with Katy and the West End Whingers crewe to see Entertaining Mr. Sloane at Trafalgar Studios. I did my best to shield myself from any information about the show before I went – I mean, the tickets were bought, I was going, why pollute the experience with a bunch of preconceived notions? All I really knew about it was that it was by Joe Orton (who I’d heard a bit about but never seen or read anything by) and starred Imelda Staunton, who is a super nova in my tiny pantheon of stars I really quite like. I figured it was likely racy and possibly had some gay themes in it, to which I said, hurray! I was just looking for a good evening out and I figured this was going to be a great start to my theatrical year.

Well! What I didn’t expect was that this show was going to be hysterically funny and the kind of top quality event that makes me grateful to live in London. (Sadly, the rest of the cast can’t be found on the Ambassador Theatre’s website – what’s wrong with them? Richard Bremmer and Simon Paisley Jones were fantastic!) Staunton was great as sexually chained Kath, the landlady who is utterly taken in by the brash and physical Mr. Sloane (Matthew Horne), the swaggering young man who comes looking for a place to live and acts like he owns the place before he’s even agreed to move in. The cast is rounded out by the twitchingly stiff brother Ed (Simon Paisley Jones) and the doddering DaDa (Richard Bremmer).

The whole thing feels like a sort of madcap Pinter, as if the bleak living situation of “The Birthday Party” and the freakishly charged sexual politics of “Homecoming” (and all of the implied class attitudes and repression of the 50s, which didn’t smell much like it had changed even in ’64) had been shaken up with “Boeing Boeing.” Kath can’t keep her pants on, but in the environment of this play, it just seems like so much comedy that she’s spent her whole life locked up by her brother and unable to create any sort of existence for herself because of some teenaged sexual shenanigans. And her brother could come off as a rigid tyrant and supporter of sexual oppression, but his own, visibly vibrating self-repression (best during the scene when Mr. Sloane’s recital of his various forms of exercise leaves Ed nearly cross-eyed – only to end the scene all but drooling on the floor as he describes the leather chauffeur’s uniform he will have to outfit Mr. Sloane in once he comes to work for him) makes him a figure of comedy. And Da is just brilliant – an old, weak man who seems like a fool but has a sharp mind under his failing body (Richard Bremmer in a performance of complete genius).

With a script that borders on ludicrous, it takes an amazing cast to pull of its cheesy lines without having it completely disintegrate – and this group of actors delivered in spades. Every one of them completely holds the stage (as if they were all attempting to upstage each other simultaneously), and while a leather-clad Mr. Sloane might catch the eye, the glowering Ed is just as powerful – though Staunton prancing around in a horrid, see-through negligee pretty well steals the show (and had nearly all of my party falling out of their chairs). She really just has the verve and wow and timing and … God, just the whole package! I really had no idea she was such a brilliant comic actress, but she is just the highlight of this show. And Bremmer’s crotchety old man was great – such a sense of menace in his own way, but absolutely no dummy, and a keen hand with a hot poker.

Who knows, maybe there was some kind of extra energy with the preview audience, but it was just an electric exchange between stage and stalls and I feel lucky to have been able to see it. Trafalgar Studios is a smallish theater, this play is just a revival, not a premiere, but damn, here I am living in London and this kind of stuff is just going on all of the time. Or not, really, because there are certainly plenty of dogs out there. But if you’re looking to get your laughs in, I gotta say, get your buns in a seat in Studio 1 and get ready for great night out – Mr. Sloane will deliver.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, January 27th, 2009. For an alternate, yet similar take, please see the West End Whingers’ review. It runs through April 13th – don’t wait too long or it will be gone!)


Review – There Came a Gypsy Riding – Almeida Theater

February 28, 2007

I was mocked tonight at the theater. I’d had a brief conversation with a woman in the bathroom at the Almeida, and I happened to pass by her talking to her knot of friends shortly thereafter. I heard this:
“Oh! Are you having a good time?”
“Wonderful, really, Actress X is so good tonight.”
“I just was talking to this girl in the bathroom and she said, ‘Ahr the aeccents off, oar is it jest me?'”
“Oh! How funny. I take it she was American?”

Anyway, tonight I went with Jess (and was most happily joined by Jason, who managed to get off call in time AND get a spare £6 ticket) to see There Came a Gypsy Riding. My actual conversation (in the ladies’ bathroom) went:
Me (to total stranger who sounded Irish): Ahr theyurr aiccents off?
Total stranger 1: I’m not Irish.
Total stranger #2: My seatmates are Irish and say there are.
Total stranger #3: They’re awfully, “Well, rahther.”

After, er, finishing up, #2 provided me with much more explicit detail: Imelda Staunton was UTTERLY failing her Donegal accent! (As if I could tell.) And Eileen Atkins, in the role of “the old nutter with the filthy mouth,” was apparently all over the place but since she was brilliant it was hard to care (I concurred).

The play itself was a good night at the theater but had a rough script lacking the, well, perfection of Night, Mother. Too many details were handled in an overly-heavy way; Bridget (the nutter)’s clunky description of finding the suicide, which reminded me of the occasional “explain the technology that enables interstellar travel” aspect of SF and denied the audience the pleasure of their own discovery of the story of the play; the dad’s quieter breakdown, which seemed to come at the moment in the play when the playwright needed it to happen rather than as a natural occurance that flowed up from the character; the sister’s brittle anger, which didn’t have any emotional depth to it. Sure, everyone was struggling, but none of them seemed to have had pasts in the way, say, Hedda Gabler does.

But still. The way the husband comforted and cared for his wife seemed to show the decades they’d spent together; the daughter’s panicked plea for her mother to “come back to us” did seem to come from the right place; and nutty Bridget’s scene talking about her marriage to Old Nick (and, much earlier, singing and dancing with dad) were very good. My hope is that the playwright will revisit and revamp this work and give the characters what they need to be real, or just focus on the mother altogether and let it be a completely brilliant role for “a woman of a certain age.” (And, ooh, I saw the actress who played Vera Drake tonight, woo!)

I leave you with pure beauty, as spoken from the play, an anticipation of a life cut short:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high-piled books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love;–then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.