Posts Tagged ‘Kneehigh Theatre’

Review – Midnight’s Pumpkin – Kneehigh at Battersea Arts Center

December 17, 2012

Ah, Kneehigh – for you and me, it is the love/hate relationship. But for all that I loved Brief Encounter, how long will the name keep enticing me to come back and see shows that are not just lacking in theatrical magic, but vile or … worse …. boring?

Well, it hasn’t happened often enough yet, because I went ahead in July and bought tickets for their latest show, Midnight’s Pumpkin, billed as a family friendly Christmas time thing sort of based on Cinderella and for prices higher than I would have paid if I’d waited (see Theatremonkey.com for details). Ah well, still, it’s not like £20 is going to kill me …

Anyway, the deal is the big space at Battersea Arts Centre has been transformed into an in the round performance area, with a big open space in the middle that you access via a series of changing rooms. For extra fun, we’re encouraged to put on costumes (after the first interval) and to become a part of the ball. I found the invitation to dance quite enticing given the music they were playing … all sorts of disco and 80’s tunes (in fact, the evil stepfamily’s post-interval dance to “Temptation” by Heaven 17 was one of the highlights of the evenings for me) not so suited to the under 10 crowd but likely perfect for their parents.

But I digress. The play, itself, is a variation on Cinderella: our heroine is, actually, called Midnight, and the narrator is a pumpkin she grew. Rather than being a repressed girl in tattered clothes who spends her time cleaning a mansion, she’s a short, geeky teen (with big glasses) whose big-hearted but somewhat clueless dad thinks a pre-made family of older, fashion-obsessed sisters is just the thing she needs to get past grieving over the loss of her mother. There are also some cute mice that move the action along and keep getting confused about her name, and a band, which accompanies songs that the various characters sing (all forgettable).

For me, one of the big mysteries of this show was Prince Charming. Played as a completely egotistical jerk who is promoting his bride search on Facebook and Twitter, he seems like the perfect opposite of a good companion for Midnight: we want her to escape and be happy, but is being with this cretin actually a win for such a sensitive soul? I found myself rather hoping for a different ending, in which the prince is turned down and perhaps chooses to marry one of the two sisters, both of whom seemed well suited to him (except for their inconveniently large feet).

This, however, was not to be. Midnight wants the prince, and the moment in which they recognize their love for each other was the best in the show: she is suspended from a hoop from the ceiling, doing aerial acrobatics, occasionally touching down for some pirouettes in her lovely red pointe shoes. Then a shower of silver glitter falls from the ceiling. Aaah! Just lovely! And Midnight is not just cute and petite but massively strong and graceful! What a heroine!

But, ultimately, not enough to save this show from being fairly mediocre, at least if you’re over 12. I suspect that between the dancing, the audience interaction, the costuming, the lightheartedness, and the supporting food and drinks, that if you have a kid this might be a fine evening. But for me, my buttons were not pushed, and the contrast between the vile attitude of the prince and humanistic inclinations of Midnight were too strong for me to overcome them in the interest of Making The Required Narrative Happen. If her fairy pumpkin’s advice can be to not wear synthetic underwear, surely he could have gone off piste enough to warn her against marrying egotistical jerks?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 14th, 2012. The show continues through January 13th.)

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Review – The Red Shoes – Kneehigh Theatre at Battersea Arts Centre

March 10, 2011

It’s easy to rant about bad shows and rave about good ones, but what do you do about a show that leaves you walking away just feeling flat? Kneehigh has stood tall in my estimation since the first performance of theirs I saw, Brief Encounter, which displayed a knack for creating theatrical magic that left me gobsmacked and truly swept away. I love shows that let the audience use their imagination to fill in the gaps, the “Empty Space” aesthetic, and they really seem to get it …

… but not for this show. Four hardscrabble actors in dingy undershirts and BVDs, with dark circles under their eyes, attempt to make this show fly under the watchful eyes of a Jane Avril-like drag queen narrator. We have a stage that is not much more than some doors and a platform overhead; the props are rarely anything more than suitcases (cunningly labeled “Red Shoes,” “Shoemaker,” or whatever character is going to need clothing next) and costumes. The actors mug, scowl, flirt, smile, leer, and generally do their best to push their personalities forward from rude mechanicals who are only given purpose by the narrator.

The tale that is told is the basic Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, full of isolation and alienation but with the original emphasis on vanity stripped out. Kneehigh’s “Girl” is lonely, her free spirit beaten down by her blind, adoptive mother; her indulgent shoes are a minor show of personality in a life otherwise focused on drudgery and obedience. When they weld themselves to her feet and she is forced to dance night and day, well, we can see she is suffering, but why has she been chosen for so much pain? Why do the people in the church turn their backs on her? In this rendition, we are left confused by her exlusion from society; it seems it can only be due to her being poor and feisty. And while it’s creepy that the shoes haunt her to the grave and beyond, there seems to be no reason for them to do so, for them to seem so bent on punishing her – and what is the final knock-down-drag-out fight with her and the angel/devil/”spirit of the shoes” about?

Going back and reading the story summary, I think the reason why I wasn’t able to engage with this story was that it was presented too much in black and white (and red); it seemed to be very much about evil shoes rather than the evils of vanity (admittedly not something modern audiences feel much horror for), and didn’t create an alternate version that I could engage with. And, despite having fine theater-craft, it was also just plain old ugly; bald actors, dirty clothing, clunky shoes, just not a moment of uplift and beauty in the whole thing (excluding the music). It was almost like, given the choice of serving us a sandwich with a rotting filling and a layer of burning horseradish relish, we just kind of got a bit of stale, moldy bread; not enough to get violently worked up about, just enough to go “ick” and then turn away. This wasn’t a horrible show, but it lacked soul and felt too much like something that had gone through the Kneehigh digestive process rather than being birthed in joy. I’m not sorry I saw it, but I feel I can clearly advise anyone who hasn’t got tickets that they’re not missing out on much. With Umbrellas of Cherbourg settling in for a nice long run at the Gielgud, there’s most likely a much better option available.

(This review is for a performance that took place on March 9th, 2011. It continues at the Battersea Arts Centre though April 9th. As a side note, when there was music, I could barely hear anything the narrator said over the endless chatter of some 6th formers two rows behind me and the crisp-packet-crinkling nightmare directly at my back, which I thought was due to being slightly deaf in my right ear; but my companion said she also couldn’t hear the narrator much of the time, so this was more due to the acoustics and miking in the venue and not so much to insanely rude audience members. That said: I’d much rather not go when the BAC’s sold a bunch of tickets to school groups as these people appear to have not been told that manners are different when watching a play as an audience member rather than when watching TV at home.)

Review – Hansel and Gretel – Kneehigh Theatre at Queen Elizabeth Hall

December 19, 2010

Kneehigh Theatre is responsible for one of the best shows I’ve seen since I moved to London, Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, and while the next show I saw them do (Don John) seemed very unfinished and unsatisfying, I don’t expect good companies (or playwrights) to always bat 1000. When you’ve hit as high as Brief Encounter, I’m going to give you a lot of slack. And I’m going to keep coming back, for a very long time, hoping that you’ll hit that moment of pure genius again, or that at least you’ll give me theater that I enjoy and remember. With this in mind, I cracked open my suffering bank account and coughed up 25 quid (somewhat sulkily as I consider panto-type entertainment more appropriately priced at 15 a pop) for tickets to their new(ish) production, Hansel and Gretel.

To be honest, I was actually _not_ going to go because it was over my price point, but one of my best friends wanted to go as a Christmas thing for us to do together, so I dug deeper than usual and hoped it would be great. And then, you know, if push came to shove I could console myself with seeing it early enough that I could get a good review in, right? I did get a little more excited when a letter came the week before the show announcing that after a trial run, they’d determined this show was really probably too scary for under-eights (and offering refunds if necessary). Ooh, a spooky, non-panto Hansel and Gretel! I had a flashback to the bloody and frightening Cinderella the Lyric Hammersmith put on a few years back. Terrifying fairy tales sound good to me and like a nice break from Christmas fairies and talking horses.

This brings us to snowy and cold today, and a house full of (many) children at Queen Elizabeth hall. I was actually quite disappointed to see a fairly traditional stage set up – the website said “Head down to the forest this Christmas as Kneehigh Theatre lead you through a spellbinding world of wit and wonder, earthly delights and eerie woods” and I thought this might mean a promenade version of H&G, which, I think, would have been really awesome. Alas, there was no being led through the woods: only the characters were going to be on stage.

The set up was two-three musician/singer types and four actors, two consistently playing the kids, and a man and a woman playing Mom and Dad then later Birdie and The Witch (as well as a pair of puppet bunnies who had more charm in them than all of Or You Could Kiss Me). Act one was a drawn out affair establishing the kids’ personalities (Hansel, a dreamer and wanna-be intellectual; Gretel, an inventor who makes Rube Goldberg affairs) and then showing the long slide of the Woodcutter’s family into poverty and starvation. The songs performed in this act were all strangely tuneless; however, the theme of being abandoned by your family really seemed to strike a chord with the audience, as there was rather a lot of blubbing, moaning, and choked sobs in the auditorium. I’d forgotten that this fairy tale was not just about a witch: having your family abandon you because they couldn’t take care of you is probably a lot closer to a child’s fears than being eaten alive. At any rate, this story did not have a lot of joking and cute to take the sting of this terror away. Don’t be mistaken: this is a play and NOT a panto and it is not a cheerful tale. My friend said it was even hard to watch as the parent of children under eight, so I can guarantee a four year old should not be brought to this show.

I was relieved when Hansel and Gretel were properly lost and the story could get on with getting on, which happened pretty much right at the break. Act two had a mock banquet with the witch (who looked very much like a panto dame in her garish dress) making lots of food for the kids to eat; then eventually Hansel winds up in a cage while Gretel tries to figure out how to save him, which she does with the help of one of her crazy inventions (a nice plot twist). I don’t think the witch was too scary – in fact, I enjoyed her rather a lot (and I liked the dualism of having her done by the kid’s father) – though the final scene where she is burned and comes out of the fire twice might get a lot of screeches and some terror. Still, that part was a nice bit of theater and I enjoyed it a great deal.

However, I found the show kind of flat overall and just feeling very much “this has been done before.” Even though the puppets were a great touch, I was really hoping for something that would reach out and engage us more, and not by being asked to sing the Canadian national anthem. This goes down as a disappointment for me – it needed to be about 20 minutes shorter and all of the songs needed rewriting. Ah well. Maybe I’ll have better luck when they do Umbrellas of Cherbourg – God knows I am already trying to figure out when I’m going to see it and it’s still months away!

(This review is for a matinee performance that took place on Sunday, December 19th, 2010. The show continues through Sunday, January 2nd, 2011.)

Review (sort of) – Kneehigh Theatre’s “Don John – Battersea Arts Centre

April 25, 2009

I am not really in a mood to write about this show.

At the very end, a bit of “Don Giovanni” is played. I felt a little bitter about being reminded about one of the most fantastic, surprising moments of any live performance I had ever seen in conjunction with this one, especially because on the surface, you might think “Don John” and “Don Giovanni” had something in common.

But they don’t really. One is a great work of art. The other is a well-designed, emotionally empty bit of theatrical time killing. I made it through intermission. Sometimes it was pretty to look at. But I’ve already written more about it here than it warrants. I will, however, remember hearing this song for the rest of my life:

(Don John continues through May 9th, 2009 at the Battersea Arts Centre, which really is a gorgeous venue. They serve a mean double vodka cran to boot, but 5.50 seems a bit steep, really.)

Great deal on Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” at the Haymarket

July 8, 2008

I noticed in yesterday’s Metro that the daily reader offer was £20 tickets (buy one at £39.50, get one free) for Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter at the Cinema Haymarket, one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. The deal is “two top price tickets for £39.50,” and, hey, if you get lucky you’ll even get some snacks at intermission. It says “Call 0871 230 1562 and quote ‘Metro offer,’ valid for all performances except Saturday evenings until 31 August.” So, hurray for this – I’ll be going back to see it again!

Review – Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter – Kneehigh Theatre at The Cinema Haymarket

June 18, 2008

(This, my favorite show of 2008, is now in New York City at Studio 54. Both The New York Times and blogger Steve On Broadway love this show – don’t miss it!)

Several months ago I heard about a unique hybrid production of the movie of Brief Encounter and the play that inspired it (Still Life), presented in the cinema where the movie premiered back in the day (restored to its glory for the show). I was intrigued but held off going so that I could attend with a gaggle of my friends. Time passed, the event hadn’t been organized, and my uncle was in town looking for a show to fill the slot on Sunday (which in London means slim pickins, no doubt about it). Torn between seeing an opera none of us had much of an interest in and a show that I personally was quite interested in, based on a movie my uncle loved, it wasn’t too hard to make the argument for skipping Covent Garden in favor of the Cinema Haymarket.

And what a good choice it was! Brief Encounter is pure theatrical magic. I can hardly sing its praises highly enough. In part, I think, I just didn’t know what to expect – I thought it was going to be people performing the dialogue in front of a movie screen. This did happen – for about the first five minutes of the show … but as it was performed, two of the actors were in the audience, and one of the “actors” was on the screen, addressing one of the people in the audience – so it was completely unlike the audience participation version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was kind of what I thought the show was going to be like.

Instead, what we got was a full-fledged multi-media show with just that clip of film as its basis, with live music and multi-tasking character actors (a cast of eight, I think?) that occasionally sang and danced and even bounced up and down in unison to indicate the passage of a train. Our star-crossed lovers, Laura (Naomi Frederick) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock) plunged into it all whole-heartedly, taking us on a boating trip, dancing in the air with joy, being kind and thoughtful to each other, and falling in love in most heart-rending fashion.

Meanwhile the rest of the brilliant cast was hamming it up in a variety of roles my uncle claimed saw little screen time in the original, but which added a lot of texture (in the form of two other love affairs) and provided the opportunity for all sorts of hijinks. It all ended in a fairly melancholy way, but we were so energized from the rest of the show, who could care? And as to the (American) woman in the bathroom who said that she didn’t remember Brief Encounter being a comedy – I say, you make a show that works in the medium you’re using, and this was a brilliant piece of theater.

My uncle, who’s retired, said Brief Encounter was worth paying full price to see – and considering he paid for three tickets, I consider that quite a compliment. (The matinee wasn’t available at the TKTS booth, although it often is for evening shows.) Also, after seeing four plays in four days (six for him), we all agreed that this was the best of the bunch – the icing on the cake for his trip to London. For me, it’s the best play I’ve seen in at least three months, possibly the year to date, and the only one that I’d go see again.