Posts Tagged ‘London Theatre reviews’

Review – Creditors – The Donmar

October 22, 2008

It is not often that a night at the theater leaves me feeling a little breathless, but last night’s trip to the Donmar did – it was an outstanding combination of a powerful script, absorbing acting, and an environment intimate enough to make it all feel real. Creditors was fantastic. It’s hard to believe that before the show I was thinking about not going because I was so worn out!

I’ve never seen a play by Strindberg before, and the only way I can describe him is “like Pinter, only with all of the words.” There were only three characters – Tekla (Anna Chancellor), her husband Adolph (Tom Burke), and the mysterious Gustav (Owen Teale). The program notes advised us to see them not as characters, but rather as archetypes, which worked well – I was reminded of Albee’s Sandbox and of No Exit when observing their interactions, which seemed hyper-real, especially in the first scene, in which a mysterious man, Gustav (a doctor? a figment of the imagination), counsels Adolph about his life. He’s already convinced Adolphe that his artistic career is meaningless, then proceeds to completely and utterly tear him apart. How does he know so much about Adolph? How is he able to hone so perfectly into his weak spots? His knowledge of the man seemed unreal. Gustav was also possessed of an unbelievable misogynism. While I could believe the character could see a woman as “a blank page upon which the husband writes” (it seemed fairly typical of other 19th century drama, Ibsen in particular), his foray into the repulsion of women’s “hemorhaghing 13 weeks out of the year” and “having bodies that are that of a fatty, slovenly youth” (paraphrased) were just too much for me to digest. On the other hand, Adolphe’s nearly pornographic sculpture of his wife – on her back with her legs spread – was also just too much for me and made it hard to not burst out laughing. This was Adolphe’s ideal? He seemed to be rather humorously focused on her crotch. Ah, the Victorian psyche – who knows what made them tick!

As the play continues, we have Adolphe tear into Tekla, followed by Tekla and Gustav going at each other, and all of it ending in a glorious menage at the end – a wonderful celebration of the way human beings get to know each other so well through the bonds of love that they well and truly aquire the power and knowledge they need to completely destroy each other, mentally and physically. Chancellor is electric as Tekla, managing to be flirty, disgusted, loving, seductive, hateful, and very much her own woman throughout the show. Gustav seems rather a bit too mental … but provides a great foil for the rather evil (and certainly hateful) Adolphe. It all reminded me of Rosmersholme – and what a failure I consider that play to be, with its ultimately weak characters and over the top storyline. If only it had been as succinct as Creditors!

I was surprised to see the Donmar as sold out as ever for this evening and with standing room seats taken yet again – can this place ever produce a bomb? And who’d have suspected Alan Rickman of such directorial depths? For its 90 minute running time, it’s well worth standing through. That said, I must thank the West End Whingers for a heads up on getting tickets for this great show, which I consider to be the second best thing I’ve seen on stage this year. (Noel Cowards’ Brief Encounter is still my favorite, and it’s still running for a few more weeks – why not see them both?)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 28th. Creditors runs through November 15th.)

Review – Living Together (The Norman Conquests) – The Old Vic (and soon The Circle in the Square Theater, NYC)

September 18, 2008

This show is being transferred to the Circle in the Square Theater in New York. Consider yourself warned!

Disclaimer: somehow, several years ago, I inadvertently watched Living Together (The Norman Conquests) on video back in Seattle. Normally I don’t watch plays on video tape, but I was broke (as I got this from the library it was free) and it was English and I figured it would be funny.

Well, it wasn’t. An utterly dull lead character, a rather silly sex farce plot … I turned it off midway and got to work on something more exciting (doubtlessly sleep, or possibly washing the dishes). I couldn’t figure out how it had just turned out to be an utter and complete dud, like a can of soda pop with no fizz, or chips that had gone stale in the bag. So the chance of any real surprises for this show were low. And yet … years later, its existence had slipped my memory. Title? Playwright? Nada. Zip. It was as if it had never happened.

And so, happily lacking a key bit of information about a certain playwright, I chose, back in December, to see “Absurd Person Singular,” which I considered at the time to be my first play by Alan Ayckbourn. In an unsurprisingly similar vein to the video I had once watched, my reaction was that … it was just so dated. I found it a real struggle to get through and really not particularly funny. The only consolation was that I went with the West End Whingers, a pair of guys I’d been dying to hang out with, as they seemed to be pretty sharp theater goers and also completely capable of knowing when to cut and run rather than insisting on punishing their theater companions while at a dog.

So another ten months or so rolls by, and yet I’ve still not made the connection about the video I saw years back and the lame play I saw in November. I was unable to properly weigh the value of watching Alan Ayckbourn versus the pleasure of a night out with the Whingers. So what did I do? When invited, I said yes, thinking perhaps Absurd Person Singular was a one-off dud. I mean, hey, this guy’s written practically hundreds of plays – everyone gets it wrong now and then, right?

The correct thing, apparently, would have been to have trusted my instincts about Ayckbourn being the Neil Simon of English theater and somehow to have REMEMBERED the horrible video I watched years ago. And yet … memory like a sieve, I forgot and I went. And if maybe the description on the Old Vic’s website rang a little bell, I just figured, eh, with a professional cast, this will be so much better, right?

Well, I’d say the only thing I got right about this evening was that it’s nice to hang out with savvy theater folk. I loved the lovely reconfiguration of the Old Vic into an “in the round” theater, until I figured out my seats were basically level with the head of the person in front of me; while I’m okay with not being able to see everyone’s faces in this configuration, I’m not okay with not being able to see them because I have someone else’s head in my face. But it was cool to see the rows of seats, like bleachers at the circus, lining the space behind where the stage normally is. I think it made the Old Vic a lot more fun.

Otherwise, well, the play is a dog. There’s just no getting around it. Who cares about Norman? (Stephen Mangan, nothing personal, mate, you did your best.) He’s not an interesting character and it’s impossible to believe anyone would want to sleep with him. Yeah, he does do some fairly comic lying and BSing, but he doesn’t seem to have any motivations behind his words or even behind his existence and didn’t seem the least bit believable. In fact, he was every bit as much of a dullard, a fizzless soda, a non-crispy chip, as he was in the horrid video. If only he’d killed himself like he’d been threatening to in the first act the whole thing would have been so much better!

Sadly, many of the doubtlessly undertheatered audience were laughing at the thin humor in this show. Now I’ll admit, the cast was good. In fact, I loved Amanda Root as Sarah, the uptight wife of Reg (Paul Ritter). She was completely inhabiting her anally retentive character, and when she finally flipped out at Annie (Jessica Hynes), I was lapping it up. But what was the point of this show? I was far more interested in the home made games that Reg was describing than anything else going on stage, though I got a little giggle when it became clear that Norman had (insert spoiler here). That said … what is the logic of the mountaineering game? It has sherpas, but what else does it have? Does everyone climb the mountain at the same time? Are there funny costumes to wear like for the cops and robbers games Reg had everyone playing during the first act? How do you win?

Now, the gimmick of these three plays (for there are two others) is that they all show different takes on the same weekend (description here). I wish that was an interesting enough reason to see them, but I think there’s a reason these plays haven’t been mounted for 34 years. In short: they are dated and they stink. Please save yourself the trouble and stay at home. Perhaps you too have dishes to wash or even some sleep to catch up on – better to do so in your house than in the deliciously reconfigured confines (and I emphasize “confine”) of the Old Vic.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 16th, 2008. I have little hope that further performances will improve the script, so consider yourself warned. The Whingers’ take on Norman is also online.)

Review – West Side Story – Sadler’s Wells (New Victoria Theatre, Milton Keynes Theatre, The Lowry, The New Wimbledon Theatre, etc.)

August 18, 2008

(Note: this show has now moved to New Victoria Theatre in Woking from Tuesday 2 through Saturday 13 September 2008, from whence it will be at Milton Keynes, The Lowry in Salford and then The New Wimbledon Theatre – even Glasgow and Cardiff.)

As a big fan of the American musical, I was determined to add West Side Story to my “seen” list – and not a cheesy high school production or a remount of the movie, but something very much like the version that’s at Sadler’s Wells right now (and through August 31st, after which it’s touring, including a two week visit to the New Wimbledon Theatre starting October 14th). It’s billed as the 50th anniversary version and “very true to the original choreography,” so I figured it was going to really to give me an opportunity to judge this show in its purest form. Does it deserve to rank with the best of the best, or was it just a 50s flash in the pan that people cling on to because of the Romeo and Juliet connection? Old chestnut or classic? There was only one way to find out … and on Friday, Katie and J and I headed out to Get Experienced.

As it turns out, this show is rather painfully popular and nearing the end of its run, so, as a blogger, I don’t consider it worth my while to spend a thousand words talking about it. You’ve either got tickets or you weren’t going to go (though perhaps you’ll go see it in New Wimbledon). I found it … well, fun, really! Jerome Robbins is a great choreographer, and the initial fight choreography was high energy and a blast to watch. The dancers were totally on form, and I had to think actually better than they would have been in the 50s – although (I think) there were way many performers to choose from back then, technique has really moved forward, and I felt like Joey McKneely’s version had a likely better execution than the original might have had. (Not that one can replace Chita Rivera, but …)

So … the music. Wow, the music was really dated, in a way I found occasionally painful. Xylophones, bizarre not-quite-melodic songs … West Side Story‘s score sounded like it was blended from some record of 50s exotica and more experimental opera of the era. Only a few of the songs were hummable, and “Tonight” was not! This left “America” and “I Feel Pretty” as the only songs I could remember after the show. The other songs were interesting and moved the narrative forward, but weren’t … well, let’s say I won’t be buying the soundtrack and singing them to myself (or an audience of amused strangers).

The set: good, very flexible, nice use of projections (shock!), kept the attention focused on the actors but still did a good job of creating the different “scenes” (the balcony scene, with “Romeo” climbing up the fire escape ladder, was especially cute).

The accents: for once, they were GOOD. Maria had an honest, fresh from a Spanish-speaking homeland young woman, and didn’t sound forced, but rather very much real. This was a huge relief to me (and based on her name I think she was probably not pushing herself too much to get it right). The rest of the performers – not once did I have my “Good God, why can’t English actors do American accents?” button pushed. Were they all Americans? I didn’t read the program (too busy watching the show), so who knows, but what they were was competent and believably American or Puerto Rican.

What does this leave? The acting and the story. Who would think that by coming to London I would have suddenly been put into a frame of mind where young toughs getting into a knife fight would become much more poignant rather than quaint (in America, we just expect street toughs to shoot each other). So when we got to the climactic knife fight, which seemed like a bit of a throwaway in Romeo and Juliet, it became so much more – young kids throwing their lives away for a stupid sense of pride in a way that meant more than it did in R&J (rich fools duelling, not very sympathetic) and very much seemed like “look, nothing’s changed.” And Tony’s role is very different – he’s a nice guy trying to break things up, he’s a completely sympathetic character. Maybe it’s a bit unrealistic that he would fall in love with a girl he only just saw at a dance, but once the fight happens, far more so than in a tale of star cross’d lovers, Tony and Maria really and truly to seemed to have no chance in the world of keeping their relationship together in a world where no one, really, wants to see them succeed.

How was the acting, though? I think it all comes down to this: we all knew how it was going to end, right? And yet way up there in the second balcony, the second balcony, mind you (where I could afford seats), I could here scores of people sniffling at the end – reserved old English people having a cry about the tragic end of what could have been a beautiful romance. And me, uh, I had some dust in my eyes and my contacts were dry, okay?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 15th, 2008. Performances continue through the 31st of August though it’s mostly sold out, but, hey, if you just want a single, you can always call the day of and get a return ticket. More information on the official “West Side Story 50th Anniversary Production website. This show will be touring for a while so you have many chances to catch it still!)

Review – Pygmalion – Old Vic Theater

August 7, 2008

What a pleasure it is to watch theater that is the very embodiment of what people expect to see in London, the English language theater capitol of the world. Witty, beautifully staged, excellently acted – it was fairly well perfect. Of course, it started with an excellent script – Shaw is a good writer – but Pygmalion is a masterpiece, right up there with Hamlet. It appears it was cut a bit for length, but I didn’t mind it much (except for a reference to a black eye later in the show that didn’t seem to make sense) – each scene was a powerhouse of action, funny dialogue, and character development. The set (Simon Higlett) was rather heavily designed, but seemed well suited to a very realistic production; the costumes (Christopher Woods) were gorgeous 1910ish fashion plates (when appropriate), and the choice to put Eliza consistently in white a wonderful decision – the cut of her tea party dress had me drooling.

The actors were all basically spot on and I can’t really say too much about any one of them (in part given that the show is ending this Saturday) that doesn’t apply to them all due to their uniform excellence. They completely inhabited their characters and each one of them, from the rather hateful Henry Higgins (Tim Pigott-Smith) to his mother (Barbara Jefford) to his housekeeper (Una Stubbs) just kept me fully engaged at all time. And Michelle Dockery, well, this Eliza she had me laughing and crying at different times during the show and had irresistable stage presence to boot. Nice job all!

The previous evening’s show had left me with a bit of Post Turkey Stress Disorder, but Pygmalion washed it all away. It closes soon, but do try to catch it if you can – a better show can hardly be imagined. Me, I want to get a copy of the script and read it all to catch the few lines I missed due to them being laughed over by the audience. What a great night!

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, August sixth.)

Review- Wink the Other Eye – Wilton’s Music Hall

August 4, 2008

What a grand time I had on Saturday when I went to Wilton’s to see Wink! I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect given the one review I’d read, but since I’m a fan of sing alongs and I like the old theatrical traditions (vaudeville, burlesque, and music hall), I wasn’t about to miss this, and rushed through a meal at the tasty and nearby “Bon Appetit” Lebanese restaurant (133 Leman Street, really very close and in a neighborhood that’s a bit of a wasteland) to be there on time. The format was a sort of loose story (the history of the hall combined with the life story of a few of the characters) framing the performance of a variety of songs. I was in very good luck as the audience the night I went was very much up for it, and shouted right back at the performers (or just made slightly off color comments) and were over all just very participatory, almost at the level I’d expect of Rocky Horror Picture Show (but not quite at panto level). The audience also sang along with every number, which was especially impressive given that only a quarter of the songs had their lyrics in the program.

Of the performers, my favorite was Kali Hughes, whose voice as she sang on a swing completely transfixed me, reminding me of of the power of Eva Tanguay and her “I Don’t Care.” It was really nice to see all of the actors just hamming it up to their maximum extent, though – Mike Sengelow didn’t take being the waiter as meaning he had a bit part – he was fully in the role and then seamlessly switched into the role of a young boy later on, doing such a smooth job I missed noticing it was the same actor (though later on I put two and two together). And even though the “showgirl” character (Suzie Chard) and the “sweet innocent” (Lulu Alexandra, blonde curls and pink cheeks, my!) were hardly deep, they had great stage presence and were really fun to watch. On top of that, the singing from everyone was really great. Good job, guys!

I realize some people may wonder why I so highly praised this in some ways amateurish show – it was very much lacking in polish and the plot, such as it was, existed mostly as a device to fit songs around – but all I was looking for was a good night out and this gave it in spades. If you like singalongs, cockney culture, and/or the history of theater, I would highly recommend seeing this show. If you want to practice ahead of time, here’s the songlist (starred ones are in the program – you can see how there’s not nearly enough lyrics to get you through the evening!):

Wotcher ‘Ria*
Birmingham Bertie
Never lost her last train yet
Oh! Mr Porter*
Champagne Charlie*
Have some more, Mrs. Moore
A little fancy does you good
“Girls”
Father come home with me (“Mother’s been waiting since tea”)
Don’t Dilly Dally on the way*
It Really Is a Very Pretty Garden
It’s easy to be a lady if you try
That’s the little bit the boys admire
They made me a present of Mayfair Crescent
Joshua (“nicer that lemon squash you ‘a”)
Ta ra ra boom de a
She’s lost her honest name
Come into the Garden
Swing me just a little bit higher (the very sexy song Kali Hughes performed)
The man on the flying trapeze*
Enemy of Agar (? – can’t read)
Keep the Home Fires Burning*
My Mother Said
God Save The King (I sang “America the Beautiful since this was the song I knew to this music)
Standing at the Corner of the Street
The girl I left behind
Stairway to Devon (joke)
Hinky Dinky Parlez Vous
One of the Ruins that Cromwel Knocked About a Bit*
Bless Her Name/Champagne Charlie
I live in Trafalgar Square
Daisy

Apologies for not knowing the correct names for many of these songs. Fact was, I’d never heard most of them before so I was just guessing about the titles. I was in the minority, though!

(This review is for a performance that took place the night of Saturday, August 2nd.)

Review – “They’re Playing Our Song” – Menier Chocolate Factory

July 27, 2008

I was quite intrigued by what I would find on my first visit to the Menier Chocolate Factory. Facility-wise, I’d heard them trashed many times by the West End Whingers (and since I don’t actually have other friends who go to see theater as much as I do, this was the only view I had to go on) … but show-wise, I’d noticed that the Menier seems to have a record for picking hot shows that go on to bigger and better places (and longer runs, i.e. Dealer’s Choice) … and win big fat prizes (Sunday in the Park with George,” Oliviers and more). So I was excited to finally check out the space, but also to see the venue strutting its stuff as the place where musicals, new or neglected, take their baby-steps before going on to bigger things. They’re Playing Our Song did not constitute a debut, but rather was marking its first London revival since it opened (thanks to ColouredLights for the hot tip). I mean, God, 1982, that’s a long time for a show to not be on stage in a theater town like this.

Then again … some times shows don’t get revived for good reasons. My big advance warning was – well, it’s embarasing, but _ it was the name Neil Simon on the credits (as script author). WHAT WAS I THINKING? I have read many of his shows, and I’ve got to say, I just can’t stand his writing style. Wooden, clunky, predictable – he writes like he’s creating sitcoms. Everything is right there in your face, the characters have whimsical flaws, there are some jokes thrown in (my favorite being the one about the dress from Pippin), there’s a happy ending, bleh. For me, it’s like eating lunch from McDonalds: sure, it’s food, but are you going to sit around afterwards thinking about what you just ate? Hardly. (I think the English equivalent is Alan Aykborn, who seems to have crapped out as many shows as Mr. Simon has. I mean, really, you see Pinter and start thinking all of the writers here are blazing geniuses, but it’s just not true. I guess someone’s got to write dull old stuff that works for people who have to be talked out of spending a night in front of the television, but me, I want something that makes me excited about being in a theater and willing to spend an hour or two talking about it afterwards. No luck with this.) I felt pain for the actors watching them mouth out this dreck. Were they feeling it any more than I was? I was not convinced.

My experience of actually watching the show was fairly pleasant, though (something which I’m finding a bit embarrassing in retrospect). The leads (Connie Fisher, who’s name I found familiar for some reason, possibly the same as Phillip Whinger although perhaps I was thinking Connie Frances) and Alistair McGowan (no bells ringing there – sorry, guy) had some pretty good chemistry, despite their cheesy 70s hairstyles and clothes and, er, less than convincing command of New Yawk American English. (Connie’s accent was just gratingly heavy and off throughout, though rather like a typical American actor’s failed New Yawk-ese; McGowan’s was smooth enough but when he got out of bed and said “Good mo’ning” or something along those lines, it was just as painful as if he’d pronounced the H in herb). There was a lot of production fun-ness, like the disco dancers in the restaurant scene, the drivable piano, and the silly outfits Fischer wore (McGowan’s were hideous but not as over the top as hers), and, really, I did enjoy watching their relationship progress and got a little emotionally invested in their success (career-wise and as a couple).

But … the songs. While they fit with the show (no surprise), I got absolutely no hint that this was a musical about two people who were pop rock geniuses (or “genii,” if you prefer). The lyrics weren’t memorable, and the tunes weren’t hummable. There was an utter lack of pop magic! What a contrast with Annie Get Your Gun, with its embarassment of riches (seriously, just WHEN do you walk into a musical and find you already know all of the songs?). I actually found myself sitting in the theatre, kneecaps jammed into my femur, thinking not of the permanent loss of mobility I expected as a tragic result of watching this show from the second to last row (perfect view of the stage, but only ten inches clearance between the edge of the seat and the back of the bench in front of me – picture of injuries sustained upon exit here), but rather pining away for Avenue Q and its endless series of wonderful musical nuggets (“Schadenfreude,” “It Sucks to be Me,” “The Internet is for Porn” – when was the last time I went to a show and could name so many songs that I had, in fact, only heard for the first time?) As I sit here writing this, I can’t remember one song from this show (other than maybe a hint of the title tune, which is thankfully fading fast), and I’m the kind of person who sits singing showtunes in my house when I’m in a happy mood, so I consider this a major failure in a musical.

So They’re Playing Our Song was a mixed bag for me – boring dialogue, forgettable songs, but decent performances and entertaining enough while I was sitting there with a friend who loves musicals. (Do bring water if it’s over 20 C outside as you will be melting, and forget eating in the restaurant beforehand – it’s a sauna!) But, really, if you haven’t seen Avenue Q yet and you’re a musical theater fan, go see it instead. When it comes to adding to your lifetime treasury of wonderful shows, They’re Playing Our Song isn’t going to put a penny in your account, and since there’s shows out there that will, I highly advise going to see them instead. Me, I will happily fly Air Menier again, as it’s a great space for shows (aside from our row, which I noticed the other six people abandoned after the interval), but I’m hoping next time I find a bit more gold while I’m sifting through the sand.

(This review is for a matinee preview performance that took place Saturday, July 27th.)

Review of the opera Monkey: Journey to the West– Royal Opera House

July 25, 2008

NOTE: This show is being remounted from November 8th until December 5th at “Monkey’s World,” near the Millenium Dome. Number to call is 0844 847 1665 – which is probably Ticketmaster or something. More info here.)

What is the point in reviewing a sold out show? It can’t influence anyone to go, since it’s not possible; for those who’ve made the commitment, any critique isn’t much welcomed; for those who’ve had no luck getting tickets, praise simply rubs the salt in the wound. But with its back history for me (a year long build up!), Monkey still must have its time in the sun – and space online.

Ever since I read about the opera version of Monkey: Journey to the West I’ve been burning with desire to go. I read the book in college (as part of my Chinese lit studies), then went on to see many versions of it – marionette (at the Northwest Puppet Center in Seattle), animated, Kabuki (in Tokyo, an excellent show at the Kabuki-za), shadow puppet – it’s just an incredibly popular tale. (Sadly I never caught the t.v. show, but since it wasn’t shown in the US, I think that’s to be expected.) I am a fan of the Monkey King and I love to watch his big blazing ego wreaking havoc, especially if there is a little bit of kung-fu involved. And even though I thought I knew the story, every time I watch it seems there’s another aspect of the fairy tale I’ve missed out on. There are, it seems, an endless number of demons to be fought and gods of both heaven and hell waiting to have their noses tweaked, and Monkey does it all with panache. Who wouldn’t want to see his tale told on stage?

Unfortunately, last year’s performances all took place while I was off at a family reunion, so there was no way for me to see it, to my regret. However, when the Royal Opera put a teensy tiny ad on their site saying they were going to be presenting it this summer, I was all over it – signed up on the email list and waiting, waiting, and checking for news of when the show would happen. The day the tickets went on sale, I had already rounded up a group to go (though I could only buy four tickets), and I jumped when the bell rang to queue (online of course). At any rate – we got seats, ones I could almost afford (at £35 each in the balcony – quite steep and as it turns out with a blocked view of the climax of one of the two best scenes), and then just had to wait until the day finally rolled around.

Yesterday was, at long last, the day. What was I expecting? All I really knew is that it was going to be bright and shiny and had design work by the guy who’d done Tank Girl (Jamie Hewlett). I’d forgotten it was sung in Mandarin (a big plus for me but probably not so awesome for the youngest members of the audience) but I’d also forgotten that it was going to have lots of martial arts (yay!). In addition, there were lots of traditional Chinese performance arts on display, such as plate balancing, cloth spinning, and balancing/acrobatics. There were also what I think as more Western-style circus performances, such as rope suspension (like trapeze work – I don’t know exactly what it’s called) and a contortionist. Really, it was a smorgasborg of shiny fun things to look at, and the sets were big and “wow” (except for the part where from at least row G on up in the upper amphitheater you couldn’t see the occasional top fifth of the stage, meaning Buddha’s head was cut off in the final scene and when Monkey was fighting Princess Iron Fan, I was utterly unable to see how he won the fight). I was, however, not expecting the show to run straight through with no intermission; fortunately I heard the annoucement beforehand and was able to make a dash for the ladies’ before I went in the auditorium.

The show was pretty fun. I especially enjoyed the scene in the underwater palace of the Dragon King and the, er, lair of the “Spider Queen” slash web women (in which women acrobats were hanging from the ceiling from red silk scarves trying to trap the pilgrims in their web/cloth and thus luring them into sexual misdeeds – apparently done as a movie by the Shaw brothers in the 60s). However …

For a show with so much buildup, it may have been impossible to satify my expectations. That said, I found the narrative incoherent and saw little connections between the major sections of the show. This meant each section needed to be brilliant on its own, and most of them were quite fun to watch … but without the pieces knitting together, you are denied the opportunity to create a greater whole. The effect is more like watching a bunch of music videos.

Furthermore, while the Monkey King is funny and irritating, why isn’t there more to the characterization of his companions? Really, why should we care about whether or not he helps Tripitaka? His companions Pigsy and Sandy were just ciphers and had almost no sense of personality at all, and while Sandy wasn’t much in the book, Pigsy was a real character and certainly deserved more than he got.

I also just hated the clumsy scene transitions. Whether it was the animated movies, which detracted from the possibility of using this time to develop the characters/story more and also cut of major opportunities to do theatrical magic (and gave me horrible flashbacks to being stuck at the crummy Fa Lun Gung “Chinese Arts Spectacular”), or the times when things just stopped dead and we got to watch people move stuff on stage (how anticlimactic! how secret-revealing!), this bit seemed incredibly unpolished, especially given that it’s been touring in China and America.

Overall, I found this an enjoyable evening, but my enjoyment was limited by the poor sight lines my £35 seats offered (which could and should have been designed around, that’s what technical rehearsal is for) and, er, this bit where the magic just wasn’t happening for me. It was fun and exciting and much more entertaining than opera normally is (and in terms of providing a spectacle, this show really succeeded – I can’t remember the last time I was so caught up in the action on stage I didn’t bother reading the supertitles), but as a work of art, as something that might be the least bit emotionally moving, it was a failure, which was kind of sad.

(This review is for a show that took place on Thursday, July 24th.)

Review – “The Quiz” – Trafalgar Studios

June 25, 2008

(Note: this show closes Saturday, June 28th, so make your plans to see it right away if you’re interested.)

I have a reputation for being terminally allergic to one-person shows. Just too often they descend into a bunch of self indulgent twaddle, and I find my mind has left the room long before my body can. However, Venus as a Boy was so brilliant that I’ve been rethinking my feelings toward the form. Perhaps … when performed at one go without an intermission, there is hope.

The Quiz, therefore, hit the right buttons at about one hour in total, and the review I read in Monday’s Metro (why they won’t put the damned things online I do not know) indicated it was a comedic twist to a retelling of the Grand Inquisitor (InQUIZitor, get it?) sequence from The Brothers Karamazov, done as a burnt out actor telling the tale of telling the tale to the audience, like HamletMachine but without being so irritating. As I expected, tickets were available today at the TKTS booth (13 quid a pop – but you can also get them in advance for £15 from the Ambassadors website with coupon code “ATGQUIZ.”), so we had a quick takeaway curry from Thai Cottage, then headed off to Trafalgar Studios this evening with fairly high hopes (though the Pimms at the Wetherspoons next door did help).

I found the show quite pleasant, a good value for the money (I know this is a terrible way to view how good a show is, but since I see so many shows that I wear myself out, it’s one of the yardsticks I use) and the investment of time (I was grateful to be home before 11). I love the “breaking the fourth wall” stuff even though I didn’t know how to react to it – did he really want to have us talk back to him? And how would he have handled it if I answered his endless calls for his prompter? Would he have changed the end of the show? Would it have broken his focus?

Anyway, David Bradley was ace – just the kind of person whose hands you want to entrust yourself to when you’re going to spend an hour locked up in a dark room at someone else’s mercies. He handled the transitions between himself, the Inquisitor, his dad, Jesus, and just whomever else he wanted to be beautifully – and when he had the hood on his head, I swear to God, he looked just like Emperor Palpatine. It’s actually a bit of a shame it was only an hour long, though the BIGGER shame was the fact there were only twenty people there the night I went. Get with the program, people! The audience was laughing and chortling quite merrily so it seemed to me like this show MUST be able to pull in more punters to fill the seats. Bradley didn’t seem to stint but I’d really like to see him preening and glowing in the glare of a full house – I think he would have been even better.

Overall, I think there were a couple of points being made – a parallel between the missing prompter and Jesus (I didn’t catch this myself and fully blame the Pimms), and some more grand stuff about the light being extinguished that slipped through my finer filters for drama. But since it was all quite brief, I think the overall point is that it was interesting and funny, well lit, and a great opportunity to watch a top notch actor do it stuff. Catch it if you can! (But the theater is cold, so bring a jacket or a wrap if you don’t have sleeves.)

(This review is for a show that took place the night of Wednesday, June 25th.)

Review of “Marguerite – the Musical” – Theatre Royal Haymarket

June 13, 2008

Tonight my uncle, my husband and I went to see Marguerite – the Musical at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The reasons we went to see this show were simple: it was brand new (world premiere in London less than a month ago) and it was a musical. When it seems like 90% of what we’re seeing on stage in London is now either a revival, an American import, or some limp fish composed of pop songs with a thin through-line, this made it rather a standout. It was also not Gone With the Wind, which for some reason I could never imagine being anything other than cheesy even before the reviews sent it to its early grave (tomorrow, in fact). (Weren’t the Marguerite cast members thanking their lucky stars that they’d put their money on the winning horse!)

It’s actually hard for me to figure out what to say about this show because I didn’t find it thrilling, which is what I’m always hoping for in a musical, but this wasn’t, in fact, what I was expecting. Since the creative cast drew heavily from Les Miserables, a show I’d rank as among the most disappointing things I’ve ever seen on stage, I figured I’d loathe the music, cringe at the singing, and shudder at a banal book. Me, I am a classical musical kind of girl. I consider Oklahoma and Anything Goes the height of the form, and think that Chicago marked the end of the era. The only new musical I’ve really been passionate about is Avenue Q – everything else has mostly just been adequate, or boring, or bad.

As it turns out, the music in Marguerite is actually fairly pleasant. I really listen to the words the cast members are singing, which is especially important in this show, and the lyrics were interesting – they moved the story along without using painfully obvious rhymes to get there. The singers didn’t do that cheesy swooping thing with their voices that I hate, and the ensemble singing (the whole cast but also the trio of Marguerite, Armand and Otto) was quite good. But nothing was interesting enough for me to catch the tune and be humming it after the show, and while Marguerite (Ruthie Henshall) and Armand (Julien Ovenden) had fine voices, I wasn’t wowed by them. (This is not the case for Mr. Ovenden’s biceps, which did have my full attention.)

The story itself is pretty interesting, though not exactly any surprise to someone who’s familiar with La Dame Aux Camellias (or La Traviata, though I felt like this story split pretty far from it). A gorgeous older French woman is being kept by a German general in WWII Paris; she falls for a handsome piano player half her age, a man who makes her feel alive again. (Somehow it was all very Demi and Ashton.) There is, of course, trouble, and the Resistance gets involved. I actually was more interested in the way they wove in the historical fact of people being attacked for being collaborators after the war – and the way many people hid their lack of support for resistance activities afterwards.

I loved the set – it seemed like it was entirely made of glass, a metaphor for “people who live in glass houses,” and the use of projections on the lightly mirrored back walls very effectively created scenes of Paris without being particularly heavy-handed. Armand’s garret was very effectively created with just a bed and a big window, and the transition from scene to scene was seamless. And the costumes were quite good – one of the few times when I wasn’t sitting in my chair complaining about a lack of historical research or inappropriate use of [insert accessory here].

Overall I’d say this is a good musical, nicely set in the jewelbox that is the Theatre Royal Haymarket. For people who like the modern musical style, I think it would be a good night out – it just wasn’t one I was enraptured by, but my uncle and husband thought it was fine (though not outstanding). If you’re debating between this and, say, Jersey Boys or Wicked, I would go for Marguerite in a heartbeat, and even though I personally love Cabaret and Chicago, it would be much better to give a new show a chance. While GWTW deserved its fate, this show deserves much better. That said, will someone please bring Xanadu the Musical to London for me?

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, June 13th.)

Review of “The Good Soul of Szechuan” with Jane Horrocks – Young Vic

May 13, 2008

Last night Wechsler and I headed to the Young Vic to catch Jane Horrocks in “The Good Soul of Szechuan” at the Young Vic. Beforehand we went to the Bangalore Express, which is my new pre-Vic (young or old) dinner joint; it’s right across from Waterloo and thus easy access from work or home, and they got the food on my table in about five minutes flat after I ordered – “no muss, no fuss,” as they used to say. Their prices are great and they serve duck.

But really, this is about the play, right? Well sated and sufficiently caffeinated to overcome my post-Florida jet lag for the duration of the night, we joined the long, long queue in front of the Young Vic only to discover the savvier Whingers had set themselves up at a bar down the street (their review of the evening, I mean play, here). I briefly joined them (else we would not have been able to enter the theater!) then returned to wait in line for another five minutes or so. Eventually we traipsed in the long (and scene-setting) way, then scored ideal seat about eight rows back. The dust in the air from the set nearly cost me at the outset (and if you’re asthmatic I suggest you highly consider skipping this show), but it settled enough for him to enjoy the rest of the show (despite the smoking).

Sooooo … the play. This is Brecht, right? And you know about Brecht. It’s like Shakespeare; if you don’t want multiple plots and soliloquies and strange words, don’t go. For Brecht, well, he’s got a message: people are basically good, but this society of want in which we live keeps them down and makes them do bad thing. If people just had a little more to eat, so many problems would go away! Creating plays with character “evolution” or, really, introspection isn’t really Brecht’s way. He’s going to put his flat characters on stage and make them dance, and, if you’re like me, you’ll find it generally amusing, except for the singing bit (why do they always having singing in Brecht shows? It’s never any good). I mean, it’s a morality play, basically, sometimes with gangsters, sometimes with ….

Three gods come to a small village in Szechuan (which no one apparently knows how to pronounce, despite living there), looking for a good soul. Inadvertently, they come upon Jane Horrocks (looking twenty years younger than she did in the wretched and unfunny Absurd Person Singular), playing the part of a really pretty prostitute. They give her a pile of money … and now that she’s got something, instead of nothing, her life REALLY starts to fall apart, because, well, when you’ve got nothing, people can’t get much from you, but when you’ve got something, everyone wants to get their piece.

Or, well, so Brecht posits, or perhaps he’s saying that money is just corrupting and the poor can’t win. He gets in his digs at pious capitalists (as embodied by the gods) and other people that do their best to make the lot of the poor worse while supposedly uplifting them (some things do never change). Me, well, I loved Horrock’s charming turn as the two-natured Shen Tay (perhaps really Shen Tai), and found her just as adorable in her little cheap dress as in a suit and fedora (rar!). I also found the boyfriend just as convincing playing a miserable clod who wanted to die as a lying man who wanted to take her for all she was worth – it’s funny how those words can come out of the same person’s mouth and yet still sound like the truth – when not delivered by actors! While other member of the party were finding the script just too cartoony to be managable, I found myself instead nodding along with Horrocks as she looked into the audience and said (of her boyfriend), “He is a bad man! He only wants me for what he can get from me!” And I was also sucked in as she decided to not hate him. It takes really good actors to take this stuff and make it mean something, and I bought it. It’s a good production – but remember, if you don’t like Brecht, there’s probably not much that will change your mind. (That said …. if only they’d really let her sing! What is the next show she is going to be in? Something with songs that don’t make me want to clap my hands over my ears?)

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, May 12, 2008.)