Posts Tagged ‘London theater reviews’

Review – Three Days of Rain – Apollo Theatre

February 10, 2009

Last night I went with the West End Whingers’ crewe to see Three Days of Rain at the Apollo Theatre. The show had an interesting premise – three kids trying to figure out the history of their (two) families, as LastMinute.com put it: “how the private worlds of one generation are reinterpreted by the next.” That was enough to interest me: God knows I’d never heard of any of the actors before (though I rarely do – it takes a lot to get me to pay attention and I’m completely immune to the cult of celebrity).

The evening started out nicely enough at the White Horse, just behind the theater, a charming little warren of rooms complete with live fireplace that I’ll be sure to visit again soon. The theater itself is gorgeous – just the sort of place to see a show in London, but completely the wrong place to see a play about modern architecture! (The National would probably have been a better choice.)

When the show started, we were greeted by a deafening wall of noise that had me sticking my fingers in my ears. This is probably where they should have stayed, as at about the second sentence, when the character Walker (James McAvoy) says he’s “soaking up the Stravinsky of it,” I suddently had a Fram-ish vision of doom: I had just paid very good money to see a play that was completely up its ass. It isn’t about relationships, or understanding your family, and doesn’t feature interesting characters or good writing; it is the sort of sad show in which an author feels like name-dropping references to good artists (and art, and philosophers) will somehow add to the quality of his own work. Nietzche, Hegel – for God’s sake, most of the times the references were completely irrelevant! (The mention of Oedipus and quote from Hamlet are excepted as actually feeding into the plot, but saying “I feel like Hedda Gabler!” while burning a book made no sense to any of us.)

To top it off, the characters themselves weren’t actually doing anything. James McAvoy was utterly unconvincing as a slightly mad twenty-something, but he suffered from a script that also turned his character’s sister, Nan (Lyndsey Marshal) into a bit of a flat little robot with nothing interesting at all about her. And what were they talking about? Not their relationship, and not really their relationship with their parents; they were talking about … architecture … but not very much. They didn’t spend more than about two sentences explaining why buildings are interesting or inspiring … they just kind of asked each other questions about the past and what they didn’t understand about their parents and, er, what was going on with their dad’s will. Basically, they were doing nothing but setting us up for the second act (in which all action occurs), only, unlike a movie trailer, this took a good hour to accomplish.

It was all just so boring. I was losing my will to live. As they continued to speak and move around on stage, I vividly pictured the image I had seen on my computer just before I left work, of a Rem Koolhaas building burning in Beijing. It seemed to capture what was going on stage so well – the wanton destruction of two hours of my life for no good reason at all, and without even glorifying the art form it claimed to celebrate.

Which made me wonder (and I had plenty of time to wonder as my mind left the building to walk the streets of London), what is it that gets people so excited about architecture? It’s just not an art that transfers well to other mediums. A stage show about people trying to put on a musical, or write a good play? A book about a writer? These things seem to work, but plays and movies about brave heroic architects just don’t really cut the mustard. And to end a play with a man masculinely drawing a straight line across a piece of paper with a T-square … I just wanted to put a bullet through the production, and the script, for all time. What in the hell were they thinking? What was Richard Greenberg thinking when he wrote this turkey? Had he been collaborating with David Bowie or something? The character of Pip (Nigel Harman), the shallow TV actor (with a messed up accent – where did they cook THAT up?), provided desperately needed comic relief, but still didn’t succeed in really moving the story forward. How did they manage to entirely blow an act without a damned thing happening? GAH.

Anyway, I contemplated leaving during the intermission pretty seriously, but was told that the second act was a LOT better. And, well, the second act actually featured people interacting and doing things with each other that involved PLOT and transformation, and it was much better indeed, though to be honest to some extent I felt this was because the bar had been set so low in the first act. Overall, though, the play suffered from the same mistakes as Gesthemane – an excess of focus on ideas at the expense of creating an interesting show, in which characters create dramatic tension through their interactions with and relationships with each other. I couldn’t entirely buy Harman’s (as Theo) bullying of his stuttering friend Ned (McAvoy, much improved in act 2) … it didn’t have a naturalness to it. The development of the relationship between Ned and Lina was the only real drama of the whole evening … but it wasn’t enough and the ending just made the whole thing fall down limp for me.

In short: don’t bother. It’s not the worst thing out there, but it’s not worth spending money or time on. Instead, run out to go see Zorro, which I’ve just discovered is closing March 14, 2009. Now THAT’S a tragedy for you.

(This review is for a preview performance on February 9, 2009. Three Days of Rain runs until May 2nd, 2009. For another view on the show, please see the West End Whingers site or John Morrison’s blog.)

Advertisements

Review – “Zorro” (the musical) – Garrick Theater

October 16, 2008

Also known as “The Boots of Zorro” if you were so unfortunate as to be sitting with us in the back of the stalls. Entire songs were sung during which we mostly only saw Zorro’s feet!

While this was a really fun show, I’d like to warn people off of the bad seats. While my £23 tickets from LastMinute were perhaps appropriately priced for what I got (and it was still entertaining all the way back in the crap seats), I was personally embarassed when I realized I’d bought seats that hid about a third of the action (we could only see about seven feet up from the floor of the stage, and much is done in the upper levels of the set, such as Zorro flying in on ropes and such, and people singing and talking to people elsewhere). I thus looked about to confirm which seats are crap so that you can know what you’er getting into – I mean, it’s not really a “half priced” seat if there’s no way in hell you would have paid £55 for it in the first place, right? So:

Row Q back to Z: rotten sightlines, 1/3 of the production is not visible.
L forward decent, except on the far sides: avoid H 1-3 and 21-23, and K and L 1-4 and 20-23 – these are obstructed by the overhang.

Anyway, grousing aside: Zorro is basically a staged B movie, with bonus flamenco music and some very English panto-y songs tossed in. It is not deep, it is not attempting to copy any movie version I know of, it is not trying to Phantom or Cats, and there’s not a lot of concern about historical accuracy (and, my God, the very English pronunciation of “Los AnGuhLeez” by the “Alcade” at the beginning of the show made me laugh – it was like listening to Bugs Bunny).

The songs are mostly forgettable (other than the one about how women “like a man who can thrust”), but the flamenco is actually quite decent for staged (i.e. non-improv) stuff and, combined with the quite good Flamenco singing (something I seriously did not expect), really added a lot to the show. (I quite like Flamenco and was expecting the worst, but my only real complaint was the costuming not being right for the music.) They even found a way to make it make sense to have Flamenco (and gypsies) in a show set in California – they came over from Spain with Zorro! The dancing overall (which had far more than just flamenco) was fine enough, though occasionally it veered into bad Martha Graham slash Pat Benatar music video territory.

I must say, though, that the cast really made this show in a way that surpassed all of the cheese elements and turned it into a really good night out. Matt Rawle, our Zorro, had that Johnny Depp “yum” factor that made me think the movie could really have been so much better. His swordplay wasn’t so great, but hey, I blame the person who designed the fight, not him. Emma Williams as romantic lead Luisa was fun – she managed to not get into the whiny prude element of the character (whew!) (and had a bit of a Grease/Sandy makeover at the end of the show), and masked her lack of Flamenco skills well enough by being carried over the heads of the other characters during a key scene.

My favorites, though, were Nick Cavaliere as “Garcia,” the nerdy guy working for the bad guy, who started off looking like a spineless bootlicker but displayed more roundess as a character (rather than just pulchritude) as the evening wore on (as well as providing the most comic moments). Head scene stealer was Inez (Leslie Martinez), whose gypsy bad girl was just a pile of fun to watch. I don’t think she is a brilliant dancer, but she definitely showed star power and made the night a good one. Without these two characters, who could have been played/written in a very two dimensional way, the show would never have been such a good time.

If you’re considering seeing this, I would encourage you to do so. Pretty well from the first appearance of the “Mark of the Lesser Than Sign” (as that’s all I could see from my seats), I was enjoying myself. There was a wee bit of nudity (a booty flash from a lady), but other than some double entendres, I consider it fairly suitable family fare, and a fun night out to boot. Have a glass of sangria or two before the show, avoid the crap seats in the second half of the stalls, and I think it will be just about a perfect evening! (Thanks to the Westend Whingers for the recommendation – I would never have bothered otherwise.)

(This review was for a performance seen on Wednesday, October 15th. Note that later a friend of mind teased me about the Curse of LowRow, which is when I get what I deserve for being so cheap with my theater choices, but the occasional utterly crap seat is well worth the opportunity to see so many shows which I could otherwise not afford. And hey, I can – almost – always go back, and in this case I will.)

Review – La Clique – London Hippodrome

October 4, 2008

Last night, on a whim, I took my sister and husband to the opening night of La Clique at the London Hippodrome. To be honest, I was somewhat motivated by the fact that since it was opening night, I could get a “scoop” on my blog. Now, I’m not so low that I’ve gone to writing stories with search keywords like “Britney Spears Naked!” or “9-11 Conspiracy Revealed!” in this blog in order to improve my traffic (see this article by Charlie Brooker to get the joke), but I have to realize there’s a lot to be said about writing a review of a show early in the run rather than the day before it closes. So I pinched my nose, forked over 30 quid a pop for tickets (standing at 10 was a big “no”; I was hoping for the 20 quid “stool” seats, but they’d all gone by 6 PM the night of the show), and in we went, moths flying out of my pocket as we walked in the door. (NOTE: Friday 10:30 PM tickets can be had for £10 with promo code STA: book at LoveTheatre.com.)

Venue first, as I figure no one has really been in the Hippodrome unless they were clubbing in the late 80s: the entrance is right on the corner of the block of buildings on the east side of Charing Cross’s Leicester Square tube exit, and it’s most remarkable to see this big staircase heading off of the sidewalk in a place that’s only ever been a flat wall before. Up we went into a sort of reception area, with clots of people milling in front of a desk where we needed to exchange our tickets for wristbands indicating which area we’d paid to sit in (yes, it’s not reserved seating – we went in half an hour before showtime so we could get better seats than we would if we showed up closer to showtime). To the left was a bar area that had all sorts of food (such as pies), so a real dinner could easily be had here (though I preferred my Chinese food dinner at Red Hot, about three minutes up the street); to the right, a coat check area.

Inside the venue there was a circular depressed area seating about 250 people, backed by red curtains; in between the lowered seating area and the curtains was a smallish raised area containing what I think were the extra premium “seats with tables” (with flowers and candles on them) and a grand piano (off to the right); the nicest bar in the house appeared to be on this level, directly across from the curtains, and the seats kind of expanded out “behind” the little circular stage in the middle toward the bar.

Entrance to the venue was all stage left, and we continued on up to the seats and stools area. This was a balcony with four levels of seating, two of them tables (the ones lowest and closest to the stage were reserved, but apparently the second layer of tables would have been fine for people with my level of wristband if we’d been quick), the two further back rows of high backed chairs (which were all moved up to the glassed walls on the edge of our level of balcony to let us better see the action on stage – otherwise the balustrade was right at eye level). Behind all of these was another, less well equipped bar area (no port; wine 3.65 a glass), and a quite expansive ladies’ room. (What can I say, it’s a joy to not have to wait, and with about 15 stalls and a 1940s ambience, it was really much nicer than I expected.) We were too late to get a table, but took our places in the lower row of chairs and to the right of the stage.

If you are thinking of going, my advice is this: stools on the left to the house would be okay; all chairs and tables upstairs have a good view for all of the show; the premium tables downstairs have rather too many views of performer’s backsides; the seats really close to the stage are a DANGER ZONE and likely to result in you getting splashed or inadvertently involved in a performance; the lower seats close to the bar and facing the stage likely have a good view for everything. (I can’t say about the standing room tickets as I’m not sure where these people were shuffled off to.)

The evening opened with Cabaret Decadanse, who presented a puppet singing a disco song – pretty cute, well done, but not compelling for me as the puppetry wasn’t that amazing (I do see a lot of this stuff) and the music was recorded. If someone had been singing, that probably would have done it for me, but it wasn’t, so I sat there going, “Okay, I’m waiting to be sold on this show still!”

The next act was a “veddy English” balancing act, two guys in bowlers and suits, looking like they were fresh out of some Monty Python skit. I think the gag was that one was the butler to the other. Their skit, playing with umbrellas and canes and their hats, was a blast, and when (whoosh!) we suddenly got to see what they looked like under their suits, I was most impressed. Goodness! It’s just not what you expect of an English guy, to be ripped out like that, but then again most English guys don’t stand on each other’s head when they’re trying to share an umbrella, either. (It did make me miss my home town’s Circus Contraption, though – the strong man and the tiny, trusting girl-child just had a really powerful emotional impact on me that these guys couldn’t touch.)

My second favorite act of the night was “Mario, Queen of the Circus,” who juggled and did unicycle stuff while Queen songs were played. I admit, I’m a sucker for Queen, but there’s a lot to be said for acts that are in the small timeframe a rock song admits – you just can’t get bored of what’s happening. More importantly, though, he was a really good juggler – his stuff was timed to the music. I also enjoy the dichotomy of “art” and “rock and roll” – so often this stuff gets all pretentious and fruity and up its ass, but the Queen songs kept it fun and lively. Mario was on three times, and I really enjoyed seeing him every time.

Less exciting was “Captain Frodo,” whose a contortionist. His schtick of being inept kind of put me off of my balance, but he just didn’t put out a persona I felt was compelling. Admittedly, he was up against some very sexy competition (such as Ursula Martinez, the stripping magician – is it really legal to strip down to absolutely nothing in London?), but … I don’t know, maybe it was the sideburns or the mustache. At any rate, I didn’t go for his stuff, and it wasn’t just because watching him dislocate his elbows was hard on the stomach (though my sister had to flat out turn away from the stage).

The best act of the night was David O’Mer, the bathtub aerialist, who did this stuff with two silk rope-things hanging from over the stage where he rolled himself up the ropes just using his incredible muscles (first his arms, then his legs). He was the one who wound up splashing the front rows of the stage, who had a plastic splash curtain laid down in front of them. (This one very gay black guy dropped his and just revelled in getting splashed – I can see where that would have had its appeal!) O’Mer was just totally sexy and really had his act in top nick – there was no laziness or cue-missing, and he was mighty fine to watch. Phwoar! (And for the gents in the audience, if you didn’t have a good time with Ursula Martinez, there was also Yulia Pikhtina, the gorgeous, amazingly coordinated hula hooper, who was so classy I couldn’t believe she was Russian. Miss Behave was also back for another round, but I don’t think that her schtick is really the kind of thing that would get you that special feeling like O’Mer did for me.)

Most of the performers were on at least twice, which was good for some acts (Mario) but less so for others (Cabaret Decadanse’s “I Simply Cannot Do It Alone” from Chicago was awful, partially because you couldn’t see the performers leg and feet very well, but also because the puppet was dressed so cheaply that it just wasn’t compelling to watch in any way.) But in summary, it was a fun night but worth more like 20 quid rather than 30, and I would recommend it as really fun to do with a bunch of people after work.

(This review was for opening night, Friday, October 3, 2008. Apologies for the less than stellar writing, but I’m off to Italy in two hours and just can’t spare much time!)

Review – “I, Lear” – Trafalgar Studios

August 9, 2008

Friday night is often a difficult night to watch theater for me. All of the mainstage shows (that aren’t crap) are frequently either sold out or only offering outrageously priced tickets, and I don’t really have the energy to watch anything more than two hours long or in any way an energy suck. Fortunately, Trafalgar Studios came to my rescue. They (along with the Soho Theater) have been staging a lot of fun one acts that in many cases have had a previous life as fringe theater (often actually from the Edinburgh Fringe festival, so “creme de la fringe”) and are perfectly suited to after work on a Friday night. Also very kindly, these productions often come with a sweet price tag, in this case a mere £10, and, in the case of Lear, a relaxed start time of 7:45, enough for dinner without needing to rush. What a winner!

We’d actually seen the Sir Ian King Lear in November, so the show was still pretty fresh in my mind, and when I’d seen the ads for a comedic short version (by the Black Sheep, aka Andrew Jones and Ciaran Murtagh), I was very up for seeing it. The show was quite different than I’d originally thought, though: rather than just being Lear, it was also a bit of a tour through other plays and playwrights, framed as “the history of British theater” (starting with the Greeks and including Chekov and Tennessee Williams) and a sort of demonstration of the various acting techniques that make these shows come to life (or not).

I did actually get quite a bit of laughs out of this fast moving show. Not every joke hit, but the energy was very up, and in an intimate space like this, I could really feel it rolling off of the stage. We got a little bit of improv (when the actor’s cane broke as he attempted to lift himself off of the stage with it during the Chekov bit), several very comic lines aimed at the highly theater literate (Alan Bennet – very prolific and terribly boring – oh, why didn’t I take notes!), and a lot of corny jokes and bad puns. There was also some scatological humor (during the Greek scene) and some, er, well, maybe a lot of sex jokes. Truth be told, I was busting a gut during the show, and while the cider, sake, and Pimms might have had a bit to do with that, mostly it was just that I was getting off watching Jones and Murtagh do their thing (especially when things went a little wrong – God, I love to watch actors struggle to get their ship back upright!).

The actual Lear bit was a bit not as exciting as I was hoping for. It was actually a rehash of what we’d seen earlier, so it was a bunch of jokes that we’d been set up for (the re-enactment of Bennet’s “Faces,” the re-use of the Greek tragedy in Lear’s storm scene, the wiping of the nostrils with Marmite – don’t ask), and was fairly clever but, well, not as sharp as I would have liked and not playing on the material as well as I could have enjoyed. Still, overall the night was a good one, and the price was right on and my laughs were hearty, so I’d say “I, Lear” was a success.

(This review is for a performance that took place Friday, August 8th, 2008. I, Lear continues at Trafalgar Studios until Saturday, August 16th.)

Review – Hairspray – Shaftesbury Theatre, London

July 10, 2008

Way, way back at the dawn of time (in the theater sense, so four months back), I was idly crusing LastMinute.com and saw they had 20 quid tickets for Hairspray. Hairspray! The show everyone I know loves and which never makes it to the TKTS booth! For twenty quid! Well, the sad thing was that in order to get these great tickets, I had to book waaaaay in advance, but I found four seats available on a night when Michael Ball was performing (that is, not on a Monday and before October 25th), invited two friends of mine to come with me and J, and … well, sat and waited for months and months for the big day to finally arrive.

This leads into last night, which was FINALLY spent watching Hairspray with Bathtubgingirl and Spikeylady (as well as, and of course, my husband). I can see that the hype has been, well, not just hype. The songs were really fun (I like the 60s musical style), the costumes were great, and the big dance scenes were awesome. I can now see why Booklectic has been again and again. Clearly she’s not the only one, as a plaid-shirted teenager a few seats over was singing along to the final number. I bet all of the actors in all of the other musicals on in London right now are wishing they could work in this show – the energy was really high and the quality of the performers was tops. It was, as ever, sold out. I hadn’t seen either of the Hairspray movies, but I’m glad I went into it knowing nothing, as it meant it was all one fun surprise for me. I could probably go on about it ad nauseum but there have been so many great reviews of it that I feel like I can’t add much more (and am, in fact, mostly just writing about it here to record that I finally went).

I’d like to add that this was the most amazingly fat-positive show I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean that it was about how gaining weight is great; it actually addressed the issues of anti-fat prejudice straight on, and had the message, “You can do it! Be yourself!” This was great. I mean, it’s one thing to be overweight and have health issues, but why should feeling like a failure be so much a part of the experience of being a fat person? Is it pleasant to hang out with people who hate themselves, or to feel that way about yourself? Wouldn’t you look up to, say, a person in a wheelchair who had a sunny attitude? And yet, if you remember highschool, “gimps” and “crips” got all sorts of hatred and attitude thrown their way. Hairspray had an immensely positive message about liking yourself as you are and not letting other people’s hatred get you down, and I really, really liked that. I must add … for my two girlfriends, who have issues about their weight, this was a GREAT play for them to see, and I just hope it can help them look in the mirror and see how gorgeous they are – because they are!

The play also dealt with (in a not heavy way) the issues of race at this time in history. I really liked seeing racism handled head-on, showing both the good and the bad and, well, just the fair amount of subtlety in terms of how the race issue existed/exists in America. Unfortunately none of the black characters really had a whole lot of dimensionality to them, but, well, I guess that doesn’t really reflect the author’s experience.

Anyway, if you’ve been holding off because you can’t get good priced seats … you’re going to probably still be waiting a while. On the other hand, if you think it’s not worth it … splash out, get floor seats, and I promise you a great night out at the best musical currently playing on the West End. Don’t miss it!

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 – Dickens Unplugged – The Comedy Theatre

June 27, 2008

Choosing theater as a pick-me-up may seem a little odd to some, but I find that a really good show will really raise my mood. With that thought in mind, I invited a friend who’s a big Dickens fan to accompany me and my husband to see Dickens Unplugged at the Comedy Theatre last night. My uncle had seen it two weeks back and given it a rousing review, so I had high hopes that I had a good evening ahead of us. To improve the matter, Last Minute has been consistently flogging tickets at £10 a pop (and the Ambassadors themselves are doing a two-fer), so the risk level was very low.

I personally have a bit of a mixed history with Mr. Dickens. I was forced to read A Tale of Two Cities, Oliver, and Great Expectations while I was in high school, and I didn’t like any of them. Now, mind you, being able to refer to these books has been good for me in terms of my ability to get western culture (most recently while I was reading the Jasper Fforde “Thursday Next” mysteries, in which Miss Havisham plays a very important role), but I just found the stories themselves mawkish and trying to finish them was like a death march through fields covered in treacle. Bah. That said, I am very much pro-Dickens insofar as he was a real mover for improving the lot of the poor in Victorian times, and I am a big fan of A Christmas Carol, so I figured a night watching people re-enact scenes from his books in a comic matter would be pleasant enough.

I was not, however, expecting the show to be so musical. About half of it is sung, and, you know what? It’s good. I liked the songs and found myself humming the opening tune after the show was over (which did not happen at Marguerite). The performers were very good – all five of them played something, sometimes three guitars, sometimes an upright bass, once two trumpets (muffled), all acoustic and therefore “unplugged” (how I missed the reference I do not know) – other than one hysterical visit from an electric guitar. The men sang in fine harmony, the lyrics were clear and relevant and very often funny – it was great! And for me, it was nice to see Americans on stage doing comedy in an American style, even though it was a bit odd to hear Mr. D himself talking like a Californian.

In fact, this whole evening was a really good time. The actors interwove bits of Charles Dickens’ life with the stories he was writing, making for an interesting narrative with lots of costume changes as they each wound up playing as many as three or four characters in the course of a given story. They were great comedians and completely had my attention, especially during what I fear was an unscripted bit when Charles Dickens’ wife’s skirts started slipping off. (Ah, improv!) The highlight of the night was either the brilliant bit of stagework when they figured how to have the recently beheaded Sydney Carton come back to finish the last line of the song he was singing or the Tiny Tim rock show at the very end of A Christmas Carol.

I was cheered to see how animated and happy the audience was as we left the theater – people had really had a good time! Sadly, though, this show appears to be closing this weekend, so if you want to see it, you’d better get your tickets bought ASAP. I recommend it highly as a fine value for your theatrical dollar – er, pound.

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, June 26th.)

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.

Revew – The Revenger’s Tragedy – National Theatre

June 16, 2008

I am a big fan of the £10 series at the National – top quality shows at a quarter of the normal asking price! – so when I saw that tickets had gone on sale for The Revenger’s Tragedy during the week when my cost-conscious (read = OAP) uncle was coming to vist, I snapped up a set (though I went for £15 seats so that we could be a little closer to the action).

The Revenger’s Tragedy is a sort of anti-Hamlet, with a lead character who is hurting over someone’s death – and determined to make the bad guys pay. This leads to a bit of the silly identity-changing hijinks along the lines of some of the goofier Shakespearean comedies, but with a cast of characters which seems universally unworthy of any sympathy and the most sex and violence I’ve seen since Coriolanus – more, even. It’s kind of fun to see this group of baddies get their come-uppance, but without any one sympathetic characters it became more like watching Natural Born Killers or something of that ilk.

While the show was in no ways boring, it seemed to me like the director felt obliged to overdecorate it with fluff to make it “relevant to the modern audience” or something of the sort. Pounding techno, projections and depictions of people having sex, a woman leading a hooded man about on a leash, animated stage decor – was any of it really necessary? The text itself was pretty clear about what was going on, and clever to boot, but it seemed that there were doubts as to whether or not it could carry the story on its own. Me, I’d prefer less show and more tell. Overall, while this production wasn’t bad, I found it just didn’t capture my imagination.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, June 14th, 2008.)

Hamlet – Northern Ballet Theatre – Sadler’s Wells

April 23, 2008

I have to say I was a bit worried about how a ballet interpretation of Hamlet would come out. I’d gone to see Christopher Wheeldon’s “Elsinore” last year, and it just had no emotional power at all. How could such a neat tale, one of the most powerful tales in western literature, come off so damn flat? It almost made me feel like modern choreographers should just stick with plotless ballets. But since “Romeo and Juliet” is really so good, and I think ballet/dance really is good at story telling, AND I have this bizarre wish to see the repertory of story ballets extended beyond the old chestnuts (I mean, seriously, Matthew Bourne has done so well – with retreads), that I just queued right up for tickets for this show, based simply on a desire for wish fulfillment. (And right beforehand, I turned to J and said, “God, I hope this is good!” – the theatre-goer’s eternal prayer.)

To my pleasure, Northern Ballet Theatre’s Hamlet (choreographed by David Nixon and new this year) was really good. They had moved the story up to World War Two and Occupied Paris – a fairly common resetting for Shakespeare, at least in terms of the World Wars – but then made several changes to the story that could irritate purists but served to drive the story much better than a slavish adherence to the original would have. Hamlet’s dad (Steven Wheeler) was Paris’ head of police, killed by his uncle Claudius (Darren Goldsmith) in a blatant act of career climbing/toadying when the Nazis moved into town. This means that Hamlet (Christopher Hinton-Lewis, phwoar) is not a prince in this show, but, as a commoner, his grief at the loss of his dad is actually much more moving. I also found the women quite intriguing in an environment in which dealing with powerlessness and being, essentially, prisoners so strongly informed their actions. Gertrude (Nathalie Leger) was a fool, to be sure, but she seemed so much less of a conspirator than just another person trying to survive in very bad circumstances, and at the end, her affection for Hamlet seemed quite genuine (despite the fact that during the, er, sex scene with Claudius, she looked most unmotherly and quite sprightly in her vintage 40’s unmentionables).

And, of course, there’s Ophelia (Georgina May). Oddly, I’ve just come off of reading the book Something Rotten, which is a meta-literary comedy in which Ophelia and Polonius attempt to become the stars of the “play formerly starring Hamlet,” and it’s somehow left me with this idea that Ophelia isn’t satisfied with her role in the play (even though this is totally an artifact of the book). I felt like Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia was much better realized in this ballet than it is in the play – their love dance in the first act was just … beautiful (*gets goosebumps*). The way Hamlet lifted and carried her over his back (once he’d finally engaged with her through his sorrow), the way they held each other’s faces, the way he slid above her and she grabbed ahold of his body to lift herself right up off of the floor – it showed a degree of affection and tenderness that I never saw in Shakespeare. In addition, her mad scene in act two was FANTASTIC, a total star turn for Miss May. I’ve never seen changing the way someone walks so perfectly capture someone who’s gone over the edge – clip-clopping flat-footed in her toe shoes, hiding behind pillars, and of course handing out her bizarre little Nazi posies to the various guests at the dance. She put Lucia di Lammermoor to shame and, frankly, pulled far more of a star turn than the original Ophelia ever managed. Complain about lack of faith to the original? You’ll not hear me make a peep. This adaptation was nothing short of fantastic.

There was a lot more to this show, though, including leaping leather clad Nazis, black gowned Cabaret-style chanteuses, torture scenes, and men dancing in boots up to their knees – not really in the style of either a typical R&J (for some reason as a ballet Romeo and Juliet is ALWAYS Renaissance Italy) or a sexless Swan Lake. I can’t really say that the dance was outstanding other than in the Ophelia scenes – there was a near total lack of dancing on pointe, which made me sad – but it was good, in general, there was a rockin’ duel at the end, and it was a coherent work of theater that came complete with an original score. In short: highly recommended, and I hope it passes into the general ballet repertory.