Posts Tagged ‘London Theatre reviews’

Review – Ghosts – Arcola Theatre

August 3, 2009

On Friday night, J, W, Mel, Bill and I went to the Arcola Theater to see their production of Ghosts. I was, of course (if you’ve been reading this blog for long), interested because of my deep love of Ibsen’s work (and a previous mostly successful interpretation of Ibsen by the Arcola) – and then there’s also the pre-show carnivores’ banquet at the nearby 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, always a motivation for a trip to Dalston.

Ghosts run for three acts with no interval, meaning roughly a two hour running time. But unlike the overblown Phedre, Ghosts blazed along from start to finish with barely a pause to catch its breath. It was like a 19th century version of August, Osage County – incest, drug use, suicide, and deep dark family dysfunctions – but set in a Victorian society ruled by Biblical morality. As the show tumbled from one horrific revelation to another, it felt like being in a car during the last seconds before a crash – everything was hyper-real and felt completely unavoidable.

Yet somehow it never seemed too over the top, like Osage ultimately was. We started with a woman who was excited to have her son visiting after a long absence, we’re told about the orphanage she’s opening in honor of her husband, we meet the maid who’s in love with the son. One by one, the things we thought we knew unravel, each new tragic element reframing to the whole, as we find out what the actual truth iss underneath the inaccurate pretty picture we started with. Finally it comes back to the only original truth, that Mrs. Alving loves her son, and what that now means for both of them and their lives.

Of the characters, my favorite was Pastor Manders, whose lines Paul Hickey somehow managed to say with a straight face. This closed-minded preacher starts the play by lecturing Mrs Alving (Suzanne Burden) about how wrong it is to read the corrupt literature her son (Osvald, played by Harry Lloyd) has brought home – then admits he hasn’t read it himself as he prefers to criticize based on second hand knowledge! Over the course of the evening we see him tempted and twisted and finally served his come-uppance (as I saw it) – as tasty a theatrical treat as one could ever hope to bite into.

This play really hinges on Mrs Alving’s performance, given that she is on stage for about 90% of the show, and Ms. Burden generally did a good job of creating a woman who’d spent most of her life living a lie and was ready to move into a new world of openness and freedom from social shackles. However, at the end when she was cracking under the stress of her son’s illness, she went rather more histrionic than I was willing to swallow. That said, who knows what the proper response should have been at the end of the play … but it was only about 5 minutes when I lost connection with the drama, and I’d been caught up for the rest of the show, so it was a minor flaw.

I also very much enjoyed the performance of Natasha Broomfield as Regine and Jim Bywater as her slimy dad Engstrand. Engstrand is such a schemer, a real laugh to watch on stage, and I pretty much forgot he was acting because it all sounded so natural, like he’d just thought it up while he was standing there! Meanwhile Broomfield really seemed to “get” the bizarre social limitations of 19th century society and how it would make both Regine’s dad’s job offer and the situation at the Alvings’ house completely unacceptable for her. She also formed the face of the society the Pastor represented, the conservative Norwegian society, and showed just how much Osvald and his mother were shaking up the social order with their radical ideas. Of course, the idea of a woman choosing to pursue her own happiness over her duty and to think her own thoughts was radical enough – living together “without benefit of matrimony” really was just pushing it too far. No wonder Osvald felt the darkness of Norway sucking the life out of his body … in that day and age, I would have, too.

In short: Ghosts was a really fun evening out and, as an Arcola play, fairly easy on the budget. It’s an interesting script and well worth watching. Our two hours flew by! And it certainly deserved better than the half full house it got on Friday. Check it out while it’s on.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, July 31st. Ghosts continues through August 22nd.)

Advertisements

Review – Peer Gynt – National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble at the Barbican

May 3, 2009

On Thursday night J and I went to the Barbican to see the National Theatre of Scotland and Dundee Rep Ensemble‘s production of Peer Gynt. I was excited about this show for two main reasons. First, I love Ibsen, and I have never seen Peer Gynt before. Second, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch was supposed to be one of the theatrical events last year, and since I’d missed out on it, I wanted to see just what made this company’s work so outstanding. High hopes, eh? And I’d managed to score 8th row center seats, probably the best I’ve ever had at the Barbican.

The stage is fully opened and very bare as the story starts. The Barbican’s main stage is just a barn, and it really makes it difficult to get an intimacy to the proceedings with the 50 foot tall rafters looming above. A table and a chair or two stood in front of what looked like a billboard of the fjords of Norway; to the sides, a lowered area held chairs and what looked like about 16 people (8 on each side), sitting in chairs, who appeared to be fresh from a wedding party or hen do (the trampy clothing of the woman were confusing me but one woman was in her bridal gear); behind the wall a ramp led some two stories up from the rest of the proceedings, to a platform that looked like rather a drop to the floor below. In front of the billboard, a man dressed all in white (Cliff Burnett, sort of a cross between Nick Cave and Colonel Sanders) was playing an accordion, but he moved off stage as Peer Gynt (Keith Fleming in a tour-de-force performance) appeared, being bawled out by his old mom (Ann Louise Ross) for disappearing on a bender.

Peer Gynt looks to be an out of shape man in his middle 20s, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his character is truly a touchstone of Western play writing. I can’t speak to Ibsen’s original, but this Gynt was a grandiose drunk prone to big dreams (singing “Peer Gynt the emperor” to a tune by the Pet Shop Boys) and telling ridiculous stories to mask his shortcomings. And his shortcomings are many; no job, no girlfriend, mocked by the town (played by the wedding guests, who make snorting noises when they see him), his family’s money dwindling around him. His mom wants him to use his limited charms to actually pull the only girl in town who likes him enough to marry him, just to save her from financial ruin; but Gynt is terminally incapable of following through on any plan, even if it’s only one that would take a few hours to execute.

What he does truly excel at is storytelling, even if it’s clear that the yarns he spins are nothing but lies, tales he’s often heard elsewhere and then tried to sell as his own (as he is caught doing several times). He starts the play out taking his mom on a magic reindeer ride (on the top of a spotlit table), telling her how he rode one across hill and dale and finally down over the edge of a cliff, plunging through clouds of seagulls as he fell, a moment of storytelling and dramatic imagery that actually set the wrong stage for the evening, as this was the very best moment of the entire play, when two people standing on a table created a forest with trees and giant stags in my mind simply through their words, and nothing that happened for the rest of this evening, an evening focused on spectacle over drama, would come near it.

I want to emphasize just how much of a spectacle this evening was. I saw many things I’d never seen on a stage before: a hanged man disco-dancing; a person having a near-death experience in a plane while being seduced by a demon; the lead character being sexually assaulted by a person in a gorilla suit; a woman giving birth to a wriggling piglet. I mean, WOW, there was so much going on stage – so much that I lost my ability to care about anything I was watching around about the second hour (despite going, “Wow, never seen that before. How long is this play again?”).

Peer Gynt, touchstone of Western drama that he is, is a hard character to like, as all anti-heroes are, but I felt like I should have been more emotionally invested in what was happening to and around him. But I couldn’t rouse myself to care about Gynt any more than he could rouse himself to fix his life. The pretty girl he loved, the strange journey through his future, all of the madness with trolls … none of it moved me. It’s like somehow amidst the cavernous spaces of the Barbican’s stage, the story just got lost. Maybe it was hiding under a pile of trolls. Really, I didn’t care; I just wanted it to be over, or to get interesting again, but it didn’t happen.

Needless to say, I was disappointed by this show, even while I was occasionally impressed by its scale and vision. But like Gynt himself, Peer Gynt would have benefited from focusing on having a focus instead of flailing all over the place in a desperate attempt to make and be something grand. At three hours and eight minutes running time, it just doesn’t reward its investment. I’ll be waiting for a real production to come by and advising people to skip this.

(This review is for a show on Thursday the 30th of April, 2009. It continues through May 16th. For other opinions, see < ahref=”http://www.viewfromthestalls.co.uk/2007/10/peer-gynt-october-2007.html&#8221;)View from the Stalls and the London Theatre Blog.

Review – Over There – Royal Court Theatre

March 6, 2009

Last night I went with J to see Over There, a new play by Mark Ravenhill dealing with the topic of German reunification. Now, I admit, I went to see this for the worst of all reasons – because there were twins playing the lead roles (Harry and Luke Treadaway). Well, that’s not entirely true – I wanted to see it because the article I read in the Observer two days before, which told me about the twins gimmick and also made the play sound like it wouldn’t suck in spite of its rather overly earnest subject matter – because, let’s face it, everytime I’ve seen a play about current events, it’s either been nauseatingly preachy/self-loving or just generally lame due to unimpressive plot and characterization (“Gesthemane“). This, however, not only had twins, but (per the story) was actually more about how the East Germans actually have a fair bit to be pissed off about. This sounded like a really refreshing viewpoint. I mean, talking about it with my cube neighbor at work, she kept harping on about how expensive it was for the West Germans and how resentful they were and how the East German factories were all crap, anyway. So, if that’s the viewpoint I’ve been hearing for ten/twenty years, what’s REALLY been happening? I thought this play might give me a better idea of the truth of the story rather than the, “We saved the East Germans from their own backwardness” attitude that seems to be the party line out here in Freedomland.

Now, before I get into it with the play, I want to talk about what was actually really interesting about this show (aside from the fact it was 70 minutes long and my seats were only £12 – and genuine Corinthian leather): it did actually make me aware of the … perhaps limited is the word? … nature of the theater I’ve been watching. The article mentioned that English theater’s “restrictive naturalism,” and German theater’s “liberatingly playful” nature, and after seeing this show, I am really wondering about what I have bought into here with all of the theater I keep piling into my brain. Am I becoming the master of a tiny slice of world theater – and completely ignorant of anything else that is out there? Would I only ever see shows through the filter of the English language theater scene because of my own limitations? And what is that keeping me from getting to see and appreciate? Or, maybe, is this the only kind of stuff I could really enjoy, anyway? I certainly don’t get much out of theater spoken in languages I don’t understand, but if I see it done here, in translation, I am only seeing the same style imposed on different words.

And, I think, much of what I enjoyed about this play was the way it joyously ignored the existence of the theatrical reality that might have held it back. NOTE: SPOILER ALERT, SUMMARY: FUN SHOW. The story wasn’t really about the twins’ relationship, or their development as human beings; it was a full-on, full-length, extended metaphor for the assimilation of East Germany by West Germany, with each of the twins representing one side far more than they were meant to be real people. It was all delightfully removed from reality, from the sponge that stood in for the West German’s son to the scene in which the East German brother covered himself with flour and Nutella and was then mopped off by his brother (in a scene wildly reminiscent of Karen Finley’s performances, though it contextually was triggered by “Ostalgie” rather than abuse). What I got out of this show was that actually there were far more things going on well in East Germany than we (as in “we, western capitalist civilization”) have been willing to admit, or even knew about, and that West Germany may really have been quite the arrogant colonizing force, perhaps even a bit … cannibalistic toward their supposed “brothers” in the east.

But (you may ask), how was the “gimmick?” You know, the part where it was a show about two twins … played by two twins? While I fear it may make the show difficult to produce in the future, this really worked for me. To have East German Karl (Luke Treadaway) have shared experiences with West German Franz (Harry Treadaway) via “special twins telepathy” seems really silly, but somehow just close enough to what people expect of twins to be a completely acceptable trope. And to have them speaking together simultanously – the blending of voices couldn’t really happen so well with any other people (though even they didn’t synchronize quite right at times). The costuming and makeup were also quite helpful. Even though the guys did several scenes in really horrifying tighty-whites (or in this case reddies and greenies), the way Karl’s hair was fluffed up and unfashionable always made him look different from Franz. Furthermore, their physiques (visible rather a lot given the underwear scenes) showed viscerally that two people could be in close in blood and thought as these two were supposed to be, and yet the condition of their existences would still cause them to be differentiated from each other as adults, much as Franz and Karl have different attitude about what they value in life and what goals they should work for. (That said, the telepathy bit made it really hard for me to believe that neither knew of the other’s guardian parent’s death … which I wondered meant either that they were lying to each other or that their initial enthusiasm for the innocent versions of each other, i.e. when they first met, was becoming overlaid with lies and concealment of their feelings as they grew to know each other better.)

At any rate, I found this quite entertaining, though you should be warned it features both masturbation (hands in shorts, no genitals visible), a naked butt, and a man (in a TRULY jaw-dropping moment) doing an on-stage “tuck” so he could perform a nude scene as a woman. WOW. These guys are really brave actors! And did he ever need a towel to do his bow. I recommend this show, but be sure you know what you are in for because this was _not_ what I expected – more like Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros” than anything else I could compare it to, absurdist to the core.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 5th, 2009. “Over There” continues until March 21st. Another take is also available courtesy of the WestEnd Whingers.)

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Southwark Playhouse

February 14, 2009

Last night I went with a group of friends to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Southwark Playhouse. I’d never been there before and was enticed to attend the performance strictly on the basis of the flyer I saw at the Union Theater last month – and the fact they said the whole performance took only 90 minutes*! (The previous Midsummer I’d seen, at the Roundhouse, seemed to go way too long, and I didn’t want a repeat of that, even on a Friday.) The flyer showed a girl made up to look like an apprentice Geisha (with a strong touch of The Mikado in her styling), and just looked so pretty and charming that I thought, hey, this looks like something that could really work, and it’s one of those cute little south London theatrical spaces that need my support, and why not go? So seven of us rolled the dice and descended on the Southwark Playhouse in hope of a good night out.

As it turns out, my hope was repaid in spades. Everything about this performance was a pleasure to me, from the sound design to the set to the movement, the costuming, the props, and (of course) the performance – including the number of actors they’d chosen to perform it (utterly fat-free at seven). Instead of the normal uncomfortable yuck I felt with the arrival of the usually painfully imaginary Greek monarchs** Theseus (Kenji Watanabe) and Hippolyta (You-Ri Yamanaka), I was actually pulled in my their regal bearing and effortlessly graceful movement (as they knelt on stage to accept the petitions of Egeus and the youngsters) and … by God, they’d created a court in front of me, and I bought that the humbly bowing Hermia (Nina Kwok) actually had her life on the line by daring to reject her father’s match. I don’t think Demetrius (David Lee-Jones) and Lysander (Matt McCooey) were entirely believable as samurai – but that was okay, we had a story to tell and the accommodation was a small one since the overall premise of the show (the ball that starts the drama rolling) had actually been made digestible to me for the first time ever.

With so much of the play pared away, the dialogue popped way to the fore, and I found myself paying far more attention and actually really being able to enjoy the poetry of Shakespeare’s words. The description of love and lovers seemed gorgeously suitable for a pre-Valentine’s play, and Lysander’s later rejection of Hermia as “an acorn … a dwarf!” incredibly harsh and cutting (and funny). Hermia and Helena (Julia Sandiford)’s light and dark pink kimono were both suitably romantic, young-lady appropriate, and plain enough to do double duty – or in this case triple duty, as they played themselves, two members of the acting troupe AND members of Titania’s fairy court! I was really impressed at how well the actors handled all of these transitions and that they were able to appropriately convey them with the addition of an apron or a mask, while the bodies remained dressed in the same colors (nice job to the costumer, whom I’m guessing is Wai Yin Kwok, credited as “designer” in the program). Possibly more impressive were the props, which consisted entirely of … fans. Not a bunch of fans, either, but about six, which were cups to be drunk from, flowers to be plucked, scripts, scrolls, you name it – everything except for the wall and the lion’s mane used by the Rude Mechanicals in their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe.

I also liked the way the performance was done movement-wise, in two ways. First, the hall was set up so that we were watching – er – theater in the oblong. You see, there was a long ramp down the middle, with a painting on both ends, and we the audience set up on both sides of the stage. And yet (though I was sat in the middle), I only felt once or twice like I was missing any of the action due to blocked sight lines. I liked having the actors exit from both ends of the theater – and I liked how they could appear at the top of the back wall (over the painting of the tree) or even from behind the stage (when Titania awakes to behold her lovely ass-headed Bottom).

The second thing I enjoyed about the movement was how it was used to convey character. This is most especially true in the case of Puck (Jay Oliver Yip, also Egeus and Quince of the acting troupe), who bounced along in a way that was entirely different from any “Puck-ish” fairy I had ever seen, and yet who was entirely believable as a supernatural being because of his movement. He also was good at conveying impishness, resentment, and a variety of other emotions through his body, and, as an actor, set himself up as an utterly different character from the uptight Egeus and the blowsy Quince. Titania got hairpins and lost her Hippolyta shawl to convey her change, but Puck pretty much just had to do his transformation with the way he walked. Very nice job!

Have I enthused enough? As we walked out, we were all chattering madly away about what a good time we’d had. One of my friends found Theseus occasionally a bit hard to understand, but no one complained about the use of Japanese – it all seemed to fit in nicely and I didn’t feel like we were losing any of the Shakespeare because of it. And we were talking about the irony of having the different actors play the different characters, and the fun of the fans, and the cool set, and … what a good evening it had been and what a find the theater was and on and on and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d walked out of a Shakespearean play with more energy than when we’d walked in and at the end of a work week, nonetheless. So hats off to Jonathan Man for his brilliant realization of this play and thank you to all of the people who came together to create this really great night out.

*Ultimately the play runs more like 120 minutes as there is an interval, and that 90 minutes is only if you see one of the school productions. Still, I was back in Tooting at about 10:15, which seemed quite reasonable.

**painful due to the utter dissociation with what I’d expect of BCE Greek performance. I mean, please, you can look at all the Greek theater you want and it never reads a bit like Shakespeare’s version of Greece.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, February 13th, 2009. The show continues until February 28th.)

Review – In A Dark Dark House – Almeida Theatre

December 7, 2008

Since I enjoyed Fat Pig so much, I was excited when I heard Neil LaBute’s newest play was making its European debut at the Almeida. His writing is very much focused on the American now – not so much the historical moment we find ourselves in as the psychological landscape we live in. I’m not sure if the way I’m wired inside is similar to the English that I live among, but I think it’s different, and I think LaBute gets it. Pinter, I think, is the playwright of the English psyche – a lot of his mysteries can only be understood by those who live here. LaBute seems to understand the lies Americans tell themselves about what they feel and what is important to them, about how they want to be and how they actually act, and about how the react when they realize (or have pointed out) these contradictions. I also very much like his dialogue – it very much sounds appropriate for now, rather than being written in some “high theater” style.

In a Dark Dark House is well suited to the elements I like of his style. The story is about two brothers dealing with some very bad elements of their childhood as well as their relationship with each other. The younger brother Drew (Steven Mackintosh) has made enough of a wreck of his life that he’s wound up at a nut farm/”rehab” facility after a major car crash; he’s asked his estranged elder sibling Terry (David Morrissey) to come and help with his therapy. This all seems pretty pedestrian, even given the serious lack of empathy between the two brothers. In fact, it seems like it’s all going to blow up and the play is going to end rather quickly (though I had no idea where it was going to go) when Terry decides he’s just had enough of his brother’s game-playing bullshit and gets ready to storm of the stage and just leave him to his own devices (and likely jail sentence) when suddenly it comes out what the therapy session is really dealing with; not parental abandonment, not serious physical abuse (at the hands of their father), but child sexual abuse, and Terry’s possible role in allowing this to happen to his brother.

Wow. Suddenly I was sitting up on the edge of my seat. This is not really a topic I’ve seen dealt with much in the theater, and I’ve never seen it handled particularly well. But the effect sexual abuse has in later years on the adults who were its victims, and the particularly squirrely convolutions it has on the relationships between two people who both suffered it at the hands of the same person and then spend years not talking about it to each other … that was really something. I became entirely lost in the dialogue and really focused on the play, quite an achievement given the condition I was in (sleep dep and burnt out from work).

Oddly, it was the second scene that really had me on edge and was also the strongest one of the night. Terry left his brother as an avenging angel out to find the person who screwed them both up. Incongruously, he winds up on a miniature golf course, where Jennifer (Kira Sternbach) is waving her rather underclad (and well toned) bum at the audience while she cleans up the ball tubes (the conversational innuendo in this scene was pretty heavy, so please don’t blame it on me!). This 15 year old, who is rather heavily flirting with Terry, turns out to be … the daughter of the man who sexually abused him and his brother.

Really, just where was it all going to go? As the scene ended, with the tension ratcheted up so high I could almost not bear to watch any more, I had NO idea what the playwright was going to choose to do. We’d already done childhood sexual molestation – did we have any more evils to hit?

The final scene is at Drew’s fancy house; he’s made it out of rehab and is celebrating. Then his brother Terry shows up to tell him about what he’s been up to, and … well, let’s say it doesn’t go well. I enjoyed it, though – it was a good evening out and a peach at 1:45 running time with no interval (forgive me but I was exhausted and the Almeida is a long trek from my house), and I felt well rewarded for trusting to an author I enjoyed to provide me with an energizing and provocative (in ever so many ways) night at the theater.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 4th, 2008. In a Dark House runs through January 17th.)

Review – Gesthemane – National Theatre

December 2, 2008

Last night by uncle and I took advantage of the 10 pound day seats offer and were squeezed into a performance of David Hare’s new play, Gesthemane. It was quite a challenge to get these days seats, however, as there were already 8 people in line at 8:30 and then another 30 in line when the box office opened an hour later! So I feel my uncle actually worked to get these supposedly cheap tickets, but given that the show is sold out until February, it was the only way to see it at all and both of us were quite interested in checking out the latest by this playwright. (Okay, I admit, I’ve actually never seen anything by him before, but I thought that, given how prolifically he writes and how very many of his shows get produced, there was probably something there worth taking note of.)

The show was billed as being about politics and the “loss of idealism,” but it seemed to be to be a direct blast right at the Labour government that is really hitting the target now that the economy has tanked. “How long can this [incompetence/bullshit] continue?” “As long as the money does,” said two characters, and I had myself quite the laugh in this Last Action Hero – like moment of theatrical prescience. The story is something about a minister (Meredith Guest, played by Tamsin Greig) who is struggling because of the hijinks of her husband (financial) and her teenaged daughter (sexual), along with a parallel story of the party fix-it man, Otto Fallon (played by Stanley Townsend) who fundraises and manages things behind the scenes. In a bid for attention, the daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine, positively brilliant) decides to spill some dirt about Otto to the tabloids, putting her mother’s political career in jeopardy.

While this “story” is of some little interest, the play is more sharply focused on the conflicts between the various characters, many of whom provide Shavian speeches that pepper the ends of scenes. The characters argue about what they value (Minister Guest: more concerned with the party or her family?), who they trust (Prime Minister Beasley: in the pocket of his money man, or focused on his political allies?), and the sanctity of personal life versus fame (journalist Geoff Benzine – he chooses fame and notoriety). As the lights come down, they address us on topics as varied as religion (are political leaders more naturally zealots), keeping state secrets (you must trust that we as politicians are looking out for your best interests – and I do mean trust, blindly!) and proper party fare (my personal favorite – why not to serve neither chicken or salmon sandwiches, ever).

I continually felt during the speeches like I was being addressed by the playwright himself, and, though I mostly found myself agreeing with his points (as also delivered by Nicola Walker as disillusioned school teacher Lori Drysdale), the fact of the matter was that these screeds were already feeling like they were dated by the current economic collapse. They are already talking about the good old days, when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, but at least there were some jobs out there. To be honest, I would have preferred to have seen a play that was a bit less topical and a little more long lasting, something that would be a permanent addition to the canon rather than a flash in the pan only interesting as long as the issues it cares about are current. Suzette’s desperate angling for her mother’s attention? Timeless (and brilliantly acted to boot). Meredith’s fight for her career with her former friend, Beasley? Not as razor sharp as David Frost taking on Nixon, but a good depiction of politicians under pressure nonetheless. (This scene was rather sadly held back by Anthony Calf’s performance – he never looked to me like anything but an actor on stage pretending to be a prime minister.) But this wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the play, which had dramatic tension but not enough drama and certainly not more than two characters that were worth paying attention to. It’s a shame, really, but maybe we’ll get lucky and next time Mr. Hare can get on with a good family feud a la August, Osage County and save the speeches for his personal appearances.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 1st, 2008.)

Review – Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea” (and Sibelius’ “Luonnotar”) – English National Opera at the London Coliseum

December 1, 2008

Today we trucked into town for a matinee performance of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Riders to the Sea.” I will be honest about why I picked this show: it was 1) on a Sunday and sweet fuck all was happening anywhere else (except at the National), and it was 2) short (one hour long!) and 3) cheap (15 quid tickets, hurray!). This meant that no matter how bad it was, the pain was going to be short in duration and the cost wasn’t going to make me bewail my fate as a purchaser of ill priced tickets for an afternoon of doom. Plus it would get me home in time to cook a proper dinner and get to bed at the right time on a Sunday night (which I’ve gone and totally screwed up by staying up late writing this review – ah, the irony!).

Well, actually, I also went because my uncle was visiting – which was the entire reason why I was trying to find something to do on a Sunday at all (after all, I could have gone to see Sweeney Todd at the Union Theatre – but he nixed that), and the fact that it was on a Sunday was why I wanted it to not be a long show. But also, my uncle is a big fan of opera, but usually refuses to see it when he visits me in London, as he feels that between Munich and San Francisco he’s not actually likely to get anything done here that he hasn’t seen done elsewhere better (he does love his German opera). However … this was an English language opera and one that seemed rather unusual. I was right in picking it – my uncle thought it was something he’d likely never get a chance to see again. And, who knows, perhaps he’s even familiar with the composer – I had never heard of him (but I’m not one much for modern opera, so there you have it). Frank was actually pleased about going to see opera with me in London – the first time we’ve done so since I moved here.

The performance opened with Sibelius’ “Luonnotar” as sung by Susan Gritton. The setting was thus: a woman with long hair is standing in a boat stood on end in front of a screen showing water moving, so that it looks like we are overhead, in the sky, watching her floating in the ocean. She sings a song that sounds like a Finnish creation story, about a woman who floats in the sea and raises her knee above the water so a duck can nest on it, then twitches and sends the duck eggs flying everywhere, forming the land and the sky (or so I recall). The singing was plaintive, but the performance suffered again from ENO’s complete inability to let the music tell its own story without silly distractions; in this case, the singer removing her hair veil and letting it drop dramatically to the floor. Please, people, just let the singers do their work, acting when necessary, and otherwise just emoting via song. I liked both the song and the story it told and the imagery of the water – and was pleased that it was done as a fully staged piece rather than just being a recital. And it shifted perfectly into …

Riders from the Sea, which I really knew nothing about other than that it was sung in English. And what is it? It’s an operatic ghost story! I’ve never seen this genre done as opera before and I really enjoyed it. I find the atonality of modern opera generally boring to listen to, but it actually added to the creepy air of what was going on. And the staging was quite good – it took place in a house, as defined by a bright square on the stage (a plane of rock) that sometimes had a projection of the sea on it, which was furnished with very meager possessions – a chair/table (the top lifted to make it a chair), a stool or two, a basket, and a ladder. This space was set at the foot of cliffs, and the edge of the stage was the edge of another cliff, with the space behind at times showing as the sky and at times the sea. It was all grimly appropriate for the three direly poor women whose lives were completely dependent on their men, and who were all ruled over by the weather and the sea.

As the show starts, the sisters are talking about how one of the brothers, the second to last, is lost, presumably drowned, and their mother’s suffering at her son’s death. The dialogue is all what I think of as Irish vernacular, with very unusual speech patterns, i.e. “There’s a great roaring in the west, and it’s worse it’ll be getting when the tide’s turned to the wind.” (Full text available here, along with lots of background detail to the writing of the original story.) The last brother appears and says goodbye as he prepares to leave to sell two horses at the market in another city, basically a thing he feels vitally necessary given how poor they are. His mother is dead set against him leaving given the state of the wind and the tide, but he goes anyway, his mother then rushing after him (at her daughters’ urging) to undo the ill of sending him off with angry words. And then the fun happens, or, rather, the tale begins to really become creepy, and if you don’t want any spoilers, I will leave you there. It all seemed to go a bit much for the stereotypes of the “superstitious/ignorant Irish,” but these days that all seems like a fairytale itself.

While I didn’t much care for the music of this show, the libretto, singing, and setting could not be faulted. My favorite moment was when the mom (Patricia Bardon) is singing of her grief at losing every man in her life, while overturned boats are lowered from the rafters, looking like tombstones landing on the stage around her. It really conveyed the loss viscerally and looked great. The one thing that drove me nuts, however, was the cheap plastic bag that the missing brother’s clothes were in. For God’s sake, folks, can we not pretend at least a little that this is happening in a world that existed before plastic bags were used?

Overall, this was a good afternoon and I was pleased with the cost and investment of time. That said, I would really like to see more works by the playwright, J. M. Synge, who wrote the original text upon which the opera was based, far more so than I want to see anything else by Mr. Williams.

(This review is for a matinee performance seen on Sunday, November 30th, 2008.)

Review – Cinderella – Lyric Hammersmith

November 30, 2008

Warning: The Lyric Hammersmith’s Cinderella is NOT a panto, despite the title and the timing. Along those lines, it’s not entirely a family friendly show, certainly not for those under 8 and not at all if you don’t like your kids hearing words like “bitch” (the children around me gasped) and seeing people murdered on stage. This caused a great deal of embarrassment to me, as the five year old I brought with me ended the show crying inconsolably due to the particularly gory ending. But if you’re aware of all that …

Cinderella is actually the most imaginative retelling of this story I’ve ever seen and far exceeded my expectations for what this story could possibly be (although I was hoping for broad comedy, drag queens, bad puns, and a singalong with a lot more positive energy after spending eight hours looking at flats in South London). The format was of several fairy stories being told by Cinderella (Elizabeth Chan) and the various actors playing different characters (except for Cinderella herself). The staging was the usual “telling not showing stuff” (which can be unusual though it works better with small budget shows); the characters held little paper birds to represent the “snow pigeons,” a frame was held up in front of an actor to represent a picture, a variety of mannequins represented the numerous guests at the ball.

The acting generally felt highly stylized and wasn’t really about character development in any way; the actors were representing archetypes and conducted themselves appropriately. Fortunately, instead of the cartoony evil sisters, we had two girls (played by Katherine Manners, whose singing in Coram Boy struck me so, and Kelly Williams) who actually behaved like normal girls – afraid of their mom, wanting to make friends but not above pointing fingers to save themselves. While I was happy with them, I found Ms. Chan actually just a little too dreamy and high-archetype for the show – I wasn’t really able to be pulled in by her performance because she herself seemed so distant and two dimensional. Oddly, it seemed to be the Prince (Daniel Weyman) who did the most “acting” per se – though he was being a prince who had to act in order to deceive his mother, so perhaps this isn’t really a fair example.

The fun part of this production was, for me, seeing how the actors conveyed fairly dense theatrical visions with lightweight tools. This really came to fruition in the final scenes, which (if you haven’t read the Grimm original or don’t want a spoiler otherwise, best you stop reading now ….) required the sisters to cut off parts of their feet in order to fit into the shoes, and then later the entire “evil Stepfamily” had their eyes removed. A bit of red yarn and what looked like potatoes seemed to carry the deeds well enough (plus having them dropped into a bucket of water for effect), but my ability to enjoy this bit of theater (and it was really fun!) was terribly marred by the way it upset the little girl I’d invited to join us. She’d actually really enjoyed the entire show – I suspect all of the different stories were really catching her imagination – but this was just too much and I felt bad for having so crucially misjudged what was going to happen onstage that night. I enjoyed so much of it, including the non-standard musical accompaniment (Terje Isungset played bicycle wheels and icicles – pretty neat!), but I probably won’t be able to pull myself out of the funk caused by terrorizing a little girl for a while. On the other hand, the mistake did lead my husband to utter the immortal lines, “Look behind you! Oh, you can’t,” so it’s possible the rest of the group I was with had a good time in spite of this.

(This show is for the evening performance on Saturday, November 29th, 2009.)

Review – Spyski, or, The Importance of Being Honest – Peepolykus at the Lyric Hammersmith

October 31, 2008

As this show is closing its run November 1st, I’m going to write just a brief review.

Peepolykus are very silly and their shows make me laugh, and I was very excited about going to the Lyric Hammersmith to see their latest, “Spyski, or: the Importance of Being Honest.” Even though every bit of this show was a big pile of gags, they still managed to create interesting characters and win me over emotionally as well as making me laugh. This, plus the silly visuals (the bunk bed that turns into a disco?) that take “low budget” and turn it into an asset made for a fun evening. I couldn’t help thinking as a “whup whup whup” noise sounded overhead and a handbag was lowered from the sky of the overblown nature of “Miss Saigon” – why have a real helicopter when you can have people see a much better helicopter in their minds? In addition to all this, the story did a nice job of blending in elements of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which was fresh in my mind after seeing it at the Vaudeville earlier this year, and they get extra points for including David Bowie’s “Kooks” at the end – one of my very favorite songs. In short: a fun show, well worth the very affordable ticket price, and I’m here, as sent by the cast, to warn you via my blog: we must be horses and not sheep! Only the true power of the theater can save people from the mindless obedience encouraged by the government!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, October 30th, 2008.)

Review – Now or Later – Royal Court Jerwood

October 28, 2008

Just saw a fantastic play at the Royal Court Jerwood, Now or Later by Christopher Shinn – a play which is receiving a world premiere at this venue (or did a month ago). Wow! When do new plays ever hit the ground this topical and this good? It’s set on election night in America, where the Democratic candidate’s son is holed up in his hotel room watching election results with his best college buddy. As the results come in, news of a scandal is unfolding – pictures of the son dressed as Mohammed at a campus party are showing up on the internet. Will he apologize for being offensive? Will he stand up for his right for political expression? Will his dad ever actually talk to him? Will anyone treat him like he’s something other than a tool his parents use to further his father’s political career?

I had never been to the Royal Court before (the plush seats reminded me of sitting in my dad’s ’69 Pontiac Bonneville, if it had had a brown interior instead of a white one), and starting off our relationship with this play was really just setting up a standard I can only hope the Jerwood can maintain. Eddie Redmayne (as John Junior) was very good, though he had a bit of a strange American accent and seemed to be playing up the mental instability a bit. Nancy Crane, as mom, really had the plasticky-fakeness of politicians down straight. John Senior (Matthew Marsh) seemed to be trying to hard to come off as a “type” (the way he was wiggling his hand by his side just seemed like something he’d seen on TV but not managed to make seem natural for his character), but as he slid into his interaction with John Junior the two of them were positively electrifying, rather like watching the climactic scene of Frost/Nixon. Never have 75 minutes gone by so fast.

I was referred to this by the WestEnd Whingers (really just the best theater blog out there if you’re looking for hot tips for shows to see, or warnings for turkeys), and I am really grateful to them for pointing me in the very, very right direction. Its brevity made it a play that was easy to squeeze into a weekday evening, yet good enough that it managed to lighten my mood after a rather crummy day at work. It’s been extended to November 1st, though tickets are a bit hard to get – try SeeTickets as the venue has almost no availability. It’s your last chance – see it while it’s hot!