Posts Tagged ‘Little Angel Theatre’

December theater mini-reviews – A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Little Angel), Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndham’s) and Judgement Day (Print Room)

December 30, 2011

It’s nearly the end of the year and I’m realizing that I haven’t been able to keep up reviewing shows this month at all, an unsurprising consequence of thirteen shows, four dinners with friends, three parties, two full days on the road and two evening classes in a twenty-two day period. My time on trains has been used for napping; and my job has been too busy for me to write at work. What’s left? Why, an eight post extravaganza over the Christmas season. Don’t say you weren’t looking forward to it. Everyone else is doing recaps; hell, I haven’t even discussed the shows in the first place!

Right, so first off is “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” a collaboration between Kneehigh and the Little Angel. As a Marquez fan, I found much to recommend it: the incredible feeling of sadness (despite the chipper, English seaside setting) of both the angel and the underlying Marquez truth that people are perfectly willing to ignore magic in favor of making money; the lovely puppets; and the moments of wonderful … cinematography? (The scenes of the storm over the ocean and of the hosts of angels singing were particularly good.) It took advantage of its format to tell the story in a way that made the magical realism easy to swallow (and which would be nearly impossible to do with actors). Yet I was frustrated by the pointless songs and the occasional dumbing down of the story – both things that helped make the story more palatable for  younger audiences but which I found cluttering. Overall I enjoyed enough lovely moments in this show to find it worth the trip to Islington on a Sunday, but it frustrated me too much to really get behind it as a show. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 11th, 2011: continues through January 29th, 2012.)

Next up was Driving Miss Daisy at the Wyndham’s Theater. I wanted to see this in New York but couldn’t afford it: happily, at the end of the run, 10 quid tickets were available way up in the 2nd balcony – and for that price, I wasn’t going to complain. I mean, Vanessa Redgrave! Darth Vader – er, James Earl Jones! I knew the story generally from seeing the movie, but the undercurrent of the evolution of race relations was stronger than before – the scene where Daisy has her driver leave her at the door so she can attend a Martin Luther King dinner was particularly bitter. I couldn’t help but think of the Cracked magazine article on “Old Timey Prejudices in Movies” and its final assertion, “We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People.” This play totally seemed to be drawing from that vein of American popular culture. But still, the other story in this play – the one about aging and independence and friendship – was a joy, and I let myself be completely emotionally manipulated for the entire enjoyable ninety minutes of this show. I didn’t even care that most of the set was cheap projections of the sort that normally piss me off with their obvious cost-cutting; instead, I got into the characters and the story and even got sniffly at the end. Really, it was a perfect after work treat and I’m glad I managed to break away from Christmas programming in time to see this before it closed. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 12th, 2011. The final performance was December 17th.)

Next up was Mike Poulton’s “Judgement Day,” his version of Ibsen’s “When We Dead Awaken.” This was a must-see for me, as I love Ibsen and have never seen this play performed in any version: it got bonus must-see points for being straight through (about 80 minutes I think) and from the latter era of his writing (which I think is stronger) and in a lovely intimate space (the Print Room). However, the play is a bit melodramatic at its heart: an old sculptor (Michael Pennington) has lost his ability to create art anymore, but winds up being tracked down by the muse (Penny Downie) whom he’s convinced stole his artistic soul away – but she thinks he stole hers and is out for revenge. Meanwhile, the sculptor’s wife (Maia, Sara Vickers) is married to someone who doesn’t respect her in the least – a relationship that had me confused as it had very little to do with the central story other than to provide a contrast of a couple who is embracing life (Maia and massive jerk Baron Ulfheim, Philip Correia). The whole thing was so heavily metaphorical that it just didn’t work for me, and while Pennington was perfect, Ms. Downie just didn’t seem to get “crazy.” To be honest, I haven’t seen a crazy person portrayed believably on stage (except by Ben Daniels in Haunted Child) in so long I think maybe actors don’t actually realize how generally sane crazy people are – it’s an important survival tactic if you want to stay out of the loony bin. Anyway, I found myself still getting a bit bored despite what should have been a whip-cracking running time, so I must consider this play to have ultimately been a failure, not helped by the fact that the main characters were just painfully unsympathetic: you shouldn’t be hoping as hard as I was that they’d just fall down a cliff face and be done with it. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 13th, 2011: it closed on December 17th.)

That done, I’ve hit all of the reviews for this year I’m going to write (unless I do a round up of the Suspense Adult Puppetry festival, highly unlikely now that it’s almost two months over): time for the end of the year roundup!

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Review – The Tempest – Little Angel Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company at Little Angel Theatre

April 12, 2011

When the Little Angel Theater Twitter feed covered their work with the Royal Shakespeare Company in producing a child-friendly version of The Tempest, I pretty much ignored it – I don’t really like kid’s shows and I’m not one to travel to see shows (kiddy play, Stratford, whatever). However, my attitude changed when I saw that this show was being brought to London for presentation at the Little Angel’s home venue. I had really dismissed the show as being a throwaway to satisfy parents eager to entertain their tots (or a theater trying to prove it “reaches out” to their non-core audience), but the fact that the Little Angel thought it was good enough to put on their regular season made me think that maybe it was worth checking out and not just a case of them providing a bit of advice on “here’s how we do it.” Little A brings high production values to their shows, and, well, I had guests coming from out of town who needed entertainment on a Sunday night (as it happens the only time I could see it) and it was just opening … so I rolled the dice, bought three tickets, and took two Americans to see a puppet show on their one and only night of London theater.

I’m so glad I trusted my impulses and that they all worked together to encourage me to get tickets for this show. As it turns out, this was a full-blown coproduction of Little Angel and the Royal Shakespeare Company – it was not a “puppet” version of The Tempest (like I’d thought, and which my guests might not have liked), but a production in which two characters are done as puppets and all the rest performed by the tip-top actors of the RSC who are also manipulating puppets – and providing musical accompaniment, both sung and played. Really, I was quite impressed by what performing powerhouses these people were!

The two puppet characters in this show were Ariel and Caliban, which were actually great choices to portray in this way. Ariel was a tiny fairy, about 1 1/2 feet tall, who leaps and flies and stands on Prospero and generally behaves in ways you just couldn’t have done with an actual human actor. I pretty much ignored the person (people) who was (were) manipulating and speaking for Ariel and just focused on the puppet – a sign that the puppeteer actor people were doing a really good job! Caliban, meanwhile, was a big, squat puppet monster (seen in the production photos), and could possibly have been just as well done as a human – but I enjoyed his otherworldly qualities. In fact, with these two puppets, the world of magic that is at the heart of The Tempest came alive for me for the first time ever in a way that all-human productions just hadn’t managed to do. Prospero was a magician cavorting with spirits summoned from his books, and not just a human ruling over other humans of greater or lesser talents.

I was also just amazed by the quality of the acting, which was so much more powerful for being in a small space (Little A seats about 100 or so) – it was full-quality Shakespearean actors basically two feet away from you and really going for it. And the songs (which frequently form a part of the puppet shows here, and which I usually don’t care for) were well made, beautifully harmonized, and accompanied by some solid flute/violin/accordion (etc.) – and they added to the magical atmosphere. Ultimately, my complaints boiled down to “the love song was too soppy” and “Prospero’s brother looked like an escapee from Black Adder with his awful wig.” Really, I just thought the whole thing was great, I was completely sucked up from about minute two, and at the end I thought, “My God, did I really just pay 12 quid for that amazing show? This is what living in a country that provides real support for the arts means.” Which is what I told my visiting American friends, basically, that we see shows like this just by accident on our way home from buying groceries. But it’s not true; this show is actually very, very good. I’d say buy your ticket immediately if you’re thinking about it, because once the word gets out, there won’t be any more left.

(This review is for the 7PM show that took place on Sunday, April 10th, 2011. It continues through May 15th.)

Review – Alice in Wonderland – Little Angel Theatre

January 11, 2011

The promise of a puppet version of Alice in Wonderland got me excited a good month before the Little Angel Theater’s production opened in November. Still, due to scheduling (and some sold-out shows), I wasn’t able to actually see it until January. I was excited to see how this classic tale could be told and enhanced through the use of puppets.

The characters – Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter – were lovingly carved and full of personality. I often think the character of a puppet theater company comes out in the creatures they make to tell their shows, and the gang for this show were expressive and beautiful. There were also some great unusual “comedy” creatures, such as a house with legs, a talking bubble/triangle thing, and the disassembled cards (each with the various parts that added together to be a human – one with a head, one with arms, one with legs), that really added to the air of surrealism and unreality that make Alice such fun.

The performance took advantage of a variety of tricks to tell the unusual aspects of the story. The cards used actual paint to recolor the Queen’s roses – a literalness that could only work when the roses in question were made of paper- but Alice herself changed sizes not just through the use of different puppets, but through a wonderful shadowplay that used the trick of getting closer or further from the light to get larger and smaller. (The puppeteer in this case took the place of the puppet, but I am willing to forgive.) There was a bit with teacups in flowers that I’m pretty sure wasn’t in the original but was lovely and very appropriate to the feel of the story. And as for a talking key – well, what could be easier? This one even sang and danced in what I found a huge improvement over any bigger budget production.

However, I feel like the production had rather too many songs – it seemed like six or seven but could have been more. The first two I enjoyed, but I started getting yawny as the other ones took up time I thought might have better been applied to narrative. I’m not sure why Little Angel keeps doing shows with songs and shows with intervals; my belief is that Alice would have been better with most of the songs cut and just a straight-through show with no break. Still, it was full of magic and a very enjoyable afternoon – a treat for adults as well as children, and probably the best adaptation of Alice I’ve ever seen. Nice job, guys!

(This review is for the 11AM performance that took place on Saturday, January 8th, 2011. The production continues through January 30th, 2011.)

Review – Fantastic Mr Fox – Little Angel Theatre

September 22, 2010

Regular readers of my blog (both of you) will know that I’m a puppet theater fan. My enthusiasm started when I was in Seattle and went to the Northwest Puppet Theater regularly; they launched a series of Baroque puppet operas while I was there, which I adored and now miss horribly. I also like Japanese bunraku and kuruma ningyo style puppetry, and my trips to Sicily have been greatly enlivened by the Catanian/Syracusan and Palmiterian “teatro de pupi.”

At any rate, puppets. I love ’em. And I was pleased to have an opportunity to review the Little Angel Theater’s Fantastic Mr. Fox last Sunday – Little Angel is the only puppet theater I know of in London, and they have a solid season packed with lots of new works. I’d only been there once before, but … Roald Dahl, told with puppets? I didn’t know the story, but I wanted to go anyway, and I was able to convince a friend of mine to lend me her six year old daughter, Holly, so I could get the real skinny from the target audience.

WELL this all went very interestingly as my guest did not understand some basic rules of theater going, such as “do not touch the actors,” “do not play on the set, even if it’s the interval,” and “do not run down the aisle when the show is in progress” (which is especially important as the puppets do scenes from within the aisles, thus meaning they must be kept clear for even more than just fire code reasons). But the staff handled it with aplomb, especially the actor manipulating Mrs Fox, who nodded at and interacted with my companion in a way that shot her to the moon.

My thoughts were that the dialogue for the first half of the show was particularly hard to understand; the three farmers just didn’t project well. And the story … well, it was very odd! I guess (as another friend of mine pointed out) adapting a tale so based on digging was a bit of a challenge; I think the way the set morphed to show the changes to the foxes’ dwelling (as they dug and were dug at) was very innovative. I was also quite amused by the ending (as I didn’t know the story), in which Mr Fox appeared to set up a socialist utopia for the animals; perhaps he will only reappear when the final ghost of Maggie Thatcher leaves this earth (no chance under this administration then).

I was sorry, though, that except for my interpretation of the final message, this play didn’t really go for the sly insertion of adult-level improvised jokes that really enlivened the Northwest Puppet Theater’s works; this play was very straight and (in my eyes) very much aimed straight at its elementary school audience and less so at their parents (though I did enjoy the artistry of the puppets themselves). With that in mind, let’s see Holly’s review of the show: “I watched Fantastic Mr Fox and it was great. It was so fun! There were so many puppets. There was badgers, rabbits, weasels, moles and foxes. So I want to go there again soon!”

That’s it then: the jokes that sail over the heads of six year olds were not missed and those who the show was meant for found it, dare I say, “Fantastic” (though I have my doubts about the wisdom of having an interval when out with those of a limited attention span). And there’s no doubt I’ll be back again in November for Alice in Wonderland; Little Angel is a real treasure and we’re lucky to have them here.

(This review is for the 2:30 performance that took place on Sunday, September 19th, 2010. The show continues through November 7th; see web site for show times, and note that it is not recommended for those four years old or younger.)