Posts Tagged ‘Into the Little Hill’

Best London theater, 2009

December 19, 2009

While I’ve still got three more shows before the season’s entirely over, I feel confident that I can now get the “what was the best” posts out of the way (complete list of shows here, grand total estimated to be 116). Best dance, best musical/drama are my categories, as well as a few special celebrations and a shaming here and there. Read on …

Discovery of the year: the Southwark Playhouse. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at this small and atmospheric venue blew me away; the shows I’ve seen since have been of mixed quality (the recent and continuing Christmas Carol was a treat to be sure) but never made me feel financially cheated. Generally worth going to “just for the heck of it.” Now, mind you, Royal Court has been crowned “The New Donmar” (affordable prices, adventurous programming) and I’m planning on buying something akin to the entire spring season there, but it was hardly a discovery; it just became noticeable for its greatness this year.

Overdone gimmick of the year: “event” theater with movie or TV celebrities. Please, let’s have less of the classics being butchered by people who can’t act at extravagant prices. I realize this is probably singlehandedly responsible for the fantastic income London theater is experiencing this year, but good theater is not just about filling seats. I feel like seeing Jude Law/David Tennant/Keira Knightly on stage gets people to go just so they can say “ooh ah I was in the same room as INSERT NAME HERE” and does little to encourage the creation of good shows. The Donmar deserves an especial drubbing for going so mad for celebrity casting in their West End season – and what a horrible mistake to waste Judi Dench in that Mishima dog they put on.

Dance performance of the year: Birmingham Royal Ballet’s “E=MC2” (full discussion here) I saw the Royal Ballet many times this year and they just weren’t doing anything this exciting – not really helping the cause of getting ballet into the 21st century and recruiting new audiences so much as sticking with tried and tried and tried and true (“Mayerling” twice in two years, please!). I also give BRB points for “best new story ballet of the year” even though I don’t think Cyrano was new and I don’t think I saw any other new story ballet this year (even though I do try to go see them when I can – well, okay, there was the Wuthering Heights ballet but it seemed more like a thought than a story).

Painful lesson of the year: modern opera, I really shouldn’t bother. Die Tote Stadt, Into the Little Hill, Grand Macabre; I really want to support new opera but unfortunately I think it’s almost entirely unmusical, like it’s designed by academics to adhere to certain structures and generally not to be musical in any way.

Musical of the year: the nominees were: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical*; Company; Forbidden Broadway; (the all male) Pirates of Penzance; Silence the Musical. After tossing and turning, debating the hysterical brilliance of Silence (full of hummable, if utterly rude, tunes) and the extravagant, seedy intensity of Pirates, I’ve decided the award goes to … Pirates, which made an arthritic script come to life in a way I truly did not think possible. Rumor has it it’s going to be reprised at Wilton’s Music Hall this spring, though unfortunately I can’t find any information about it on their calendar. That said, Silence: the Musical is going to be done again at the Above the Stag theater – don’t miss out as there’s really little reason for it to be staged again so soon and it really is a hoot.

Best theater blog: I’m not going to list the ones I read (mostly because it’s a short list), but once again the West End Whingers have proven to have the blog that gets me the right hot tips on what shows to see. Sometimes it was a show I’d unimaginatively rejected; sometimes it’s a show I never heard of; almost always it was a show that was on the verge of becoming unattainable. It’s even better now that they have a Twitter feed: getting a line from them to “buy your tickets for Jerusalem now” will send me immediately to my computer. Every now and then we utterly disagree on a show; but mostly they are like having my own private theatrical pimp. I like that.

Show of the year: the nominees were: Entertaining Mr Sloane; Kursk; The Mountaintop; Enron; Cock. (Note absolutely nothing from the Donmar this year, for shame). In a year in which great shows were thin on the ground in comparison to the volume of productions being cranked out, this wasn’t nearly as competitive as I was hoping it would be. Still, I’ve weighed the best of the year (that I saw), and it’s clear: not only as best production but also as best script, Mike Bartlett’s Cock blew me away. Each performance was perfect; the close confines made it all that more intense; the words were exactly what they should be. It’s a damned shame it sold out so fast, but such good theater should never experience a single unoccupied seat for even one night. I can’t imagine it being remounted elsewhere without watering down the impact of seeing this in the round in a tiny (80 person?) house, but this was really just a tiny drop of perfection in a year that was otherwise a bit of a desert.

Right, that’s it for me: 116 shows in one year was probably about thirty more than I should have seen. I don’t even think I’m capable of remembering who the best actor and actress even were anymore. Next year, I’m hanging up my hat and taking it easy; I want 2010 to be a year when I see less shows and more that I like. This will require waiting until the reviews come in so I can more easily identify the productions that will suit me, and might mean that I miss a few that sharper people snapped up sooner – but I think it’s probably the way to go. Even sticking to a budget like I try to do, this year was taxing on my wallet as well as my sleep schedule. See you in the second balcony …

*Actually, Priscilla was never a contender for me. I just put it in there because it seemed like it should have been, especially given how expensive it was.

Review – Into the Little Hill – Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

February 19, 2009

Well, some people have all the luck. I read today about the debut of “Into the Little Hill” taking place in the Royal Opera House bar (due to a power failure at the Linbury), and I thought: Staging? Give me free drinks any old day! But it wasn’t to be my luck: I’d bought my tickets for Wednesday the 18th, and my drinks looked like they’d only be coming along provided I’d paid for them.

However we still had the luck of having the composer of “Into the Little Hill” (George Benjamin) perform the piece, and truth be told I was happy to have seats, even though the two operettas were only 40 minutes each. The first was Harrison Birtwistle’s “Down by the Greenwood Side,” a truly bizarre performance that was modern opera meets a Mummers play as performed by homeless people, including a strange little bag lady (Claire Booth) who kept singing snatches of “The Cruel Mother.” Oddly, the other characters (a hobo “Father Christmas” – Pip Donaghy, St. George – Wela Frasier, some bizarre creature called the “Bold Slasher” – Robert Hastie, and a hysterically menacing “Dr. Blood” – Julian Forsyth – no idea if any of these besides Father Christmas and St. George actually relate to Mummers plays) did almost no singing at all, but instead re-enacted a ritual in which St. George fights and loses to the “Bold Slasher,” then is resurrected by Dr. Blood and proceeds to beat the tar out of the Bold Slasher – well, sort of, only his arms and legs (which fought on their own for a while) and then eventually his head get cut off, which turned the whole thing into some kind of Monty Python sketch. It all ends with the men beating up the bag lady. I didn’t get it at all but it was more or less absorbing, except that I didn’t find the music at all interesting – it was reminding me of my uncomfortable visit to see “Pierrot Lunaire.” 1960s classical music just isn’t for me.

This was followed by “Into the Little Hill,” the star piece for the night, described as a retelling of the tale of the Pied Piper. It was performed by two women, a mezzo (Susan Bickley) who played the role of the mayor and the mother, and a soprano (Claire Booth back again in much more flattering clothes), who played the role of the Mayor’s daughter and the Pied Piper.

The text itself was quite interesting, and the staging was good – it included projections that made it possible to follow the text in some of the more poetic moments – but the music just wsn’t of a style that I cared for at all. I did enjoy the way the “sound” of the Piper’s demand for money (which was not sung) was expressed by what seemed like a fixed piano, but the piece overall left me longing for the days when music was musical. Are composers really so busy rebelling against the plebian nature of musical theater that they are satisfied to throw together disparate notes and expect people to enjoy them? I just wanted to throw my hands in the air. Really, this noise has been going on for so many decades – it’s as if the world of painting got stuck at cubism and never moved forward again! I may just have to give up on seeing performances of this type altogether. While I appreciated the intimacy of the venue and the skill of the singers (and Jon Clark’s lighting design was totally on the money), I didn’t enjoy myself at all and wound up looking at the price on my tickets somewhat bitterly at the end of the night. Things are just too tight for us right now for me to make mistakes like this. I should stick with Baroque and other early music and otherwise not go to opera any more – after 10 years of trying to cultivate a taste for it, it’s probably time to throw in the towel.

(This review is for a performance that took place Wednesday, February 18, 2009. There is a final performance of this show on February 19th.)

Into the Little Hill – Linbury Studio – Preview

February 5, 2009

I just bought some tickets to Into the Little Hill at the ROH Linbury Studio. The theme of the show sounds pretty interesting, and I really like the tale of the Cruel Mother, which is part of the accompanying “Down by the Greenwood Side.” That means the ROH has hit me up pretty heavily in the last two days – I hope they’re proud of themselves!