Posts Tagged ‘London theatre’

Theatre going in London during the 2012 Olympic Games – a personal view

July 16, 2012

A year ago, if you’d asked me what I thought the effect of the Olympics on my theater going habit was going to be, I’d have said, “Well, nothing, other than the fact that I’m planning on getting out of town for the entire two weeks!” But as we’re getting closer to the date (and, as it’s turned out, I’ve not had enough spare holiday to escape for the whole time), I’d had to realize that there has been a London effect on theater going during the Olympics, including during an extended pre-games build-up period. So I’m going to talk about that, and, LOCOG, if you think I’m going to change the title of my post because I’m not an official Olympics sponsor, you can just fuck right off.

Initially, there was some pre-games hysteria in the form of a rumor that many West end shows would go dark during the entire two week period (now only true for Sweeney Todd). This made sense to me: most theater-going in London is done by locals, and most of us were likely to try to escape town, stay home, or generally reduce our travel as much as possible during this period. (God knows TFL has been encouraging us to stay at home.) But I haven’t seen any announcements of theaters acting like it’s The Blitz anywhere, so this seems to not have come true.

A surprising side effect has been a plethora of new art in the build-up period, with the Globe-to-Globe “37 plays in 37 languages” Shakespearean event at the (shock!) Globe, a Pina Bausch celebration (she’s a choreographer for you guys who only do theater), and the “Greenwich and Docklands International Festival” (which carefully said nothing about the Games in order to keep themselves all clean with LOCOG). There was even an original staging of the movie Chariots of Fire (which felt too much to me like a calculated money grab to be very exciting) at the Hampstead Theater (which announced a transfer to the West End before it opened) and, for those of you who like film, a big project by the BFI to restore Hitchcock’s silent movies and pay for original scores to go with. Now, you can be a big Olympics hater (like me), but if you love the arts it’s hard not to get excited about these projects. In my mind it’s all part of the Jubilee and general celebration of cool stuff in England, and I’m okay with that. I mean, Hitchcock! Shakespeare! That whole music on a boat on the river thing! What’s not to love?

Well, I’ll tell you what’s not to love: the specter of total transport shutdown during the Olympics for anyone who’s trying to do anything like going about their normal routine – you know, work, home, maybe a show on the way back. But on Friday I realized the Hackney Empire – where I was planning to go see the Chinese opera The Monkey King on Sunday August 12th – is on the Overground route to Stratford, which means that getting there would be a complete nightmare. That poster of the horse on the escalator? Yeah, it would be like that, only with carriage after carriage full of people who don’t know how to ride public transportation blocking me out. I imagine the horse crapping on each step of the stair as it walks up it.

And, really, this is the fear I have for anything I can’t actually walk to from work. I’m looking at my calendar for the Olympics period and thinking: am I going to be able to get to any of it? Day one, it’s the Landor Theater for Kander & Ebb’s Curtains: since it’s on the Northern Line and south of the city, it looks safe (and frankly if I can’t there I won’t be able to get home either so I really hope this isn’t a problem). Long Day’s Journey into Night is walkable, but my friend who works in Canary Wharf may be shafted (especially given the 7 PM start time). The New Diorama Theater (with “The Rover“) is another walkable job, but can I get home from Euston? King’s Cross is supposed to be a no-man’s land. AAARGH.

As a consequence of all of this uncertainty, I’ve pretty much booked nothing for the entire period other than a five day trip to Greece. I don’t know if the theaters of London have noticed this yet or not but we’re talking probably 8-10 shows less than I would have got tickets for under normal circumstances. Rumor has it there are some good Olympic time theater deals bubbling up – ATG just put out a Best of British promotion and more may be coming soon – but I haven’t seen a flood of them yet. Keep an eye on

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 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.)

Webcowgirl’s review of London theater 2008

January 15, 2009

Well, it’s been the busiest show year for me in my entire life. Sadly, I don’t think I can speak to the entirety of London theater even with some 93 shows under my belt (all paid out of pocket, which does impose limits on what I can see), but I think I can at least say I made a good attempt at covering the scene …

Best dance performance:

New York City Ballet’s Jerome Robbins Program (Four Seasons, Moves, The Concert). I am a big fan of the mixed rep performance (because it provides you with a chance to see many different styles in one night), but often a really strong program will be marred by one piece that’s a real dog. But when you take a world class company like City Ballet and pair it with choreography by Robbins – well, this was the kind of night that had me walking out of the theater gasping for breath. Whew!

Best theater I “discovered:”

The Arcola Theatre, way off in the eastern wilds of Dalston, became the theater I most wanted to visit this year. I saw two productions there (Lady from the Sea, The Only Girl in the World) and kept trying to see more. The intimacy of the two spaces within the theater really pleased me; the coffee shop made waiting for the show to open pleasant; the inventiveness of the directors engaged my mind. Why is it that it always seems like when you give people less, they can do more? The biggest problem with this theater: getting home an hour and a half after the end of the show really killed me and kept me from seeing at least two shows. Still, they have another exciting season ahead and I will try to go back often.

Worst seating:

I know the Menier Chocolate Factory has recently started reserved seating (on a “show by show basis,” God knows why), but I actually got scrapes on my thighs from the seats I had for “They’re Playing Our Song,” and my front row seats for “A Little Night Music” put my eye level at about the height of my knees. Do these people never actually watch the shows from the seats or what?

Best cheesy musical:

though my seats were far from ideal, the most fun West end musical this year was absolutely “Zorro.” This panto for adults also wins the prize for best musical to take out of town visitors to see. I expect it will be around for a while, and deservedly so.

Best musical:

the Union Theatre in Southwark knocked my socks off with their “Annie Get Your Gun.” First you’ve got the most awesome music ever (it was just one hit after another), then you take a pile of brilliant actors and pack them in a room so tightly they’re practically sitting in your lap, then you make them sing and dance and ham it up, and there you have the incredibly overstimulating Annie/Gun experience. I’ve only not made it back to that theater because of the Union’s tendency to sell their shows out so far in advance. MUST remember to make reservations earlier from now on!

Best show:

it wasn’t just the hype: for me, “August: Osage County” was a “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night!” kind of show, with a on the mark script that in the hands of its stellar cast managed to get me through three hours of chatter without once boring me. The characters were sharp and realistically written; their conflicts believable; and, ooh, even if many of the plot points were pulled straight out of the O’Neill bag of tricks, how fresh they seemed. Oddly, both it and “Gesthemane” seemed to be critiques of a world gone rotten through bad politics (this rot seeming to extend to the family), but it’s my belief that “Osage County” will stand the test of time and O’Hare’s show will be forgotten in another year or so. It’s all about great characters and timeless themes, folks, and Tracy Letts’ play has got ’em in spades. (For a long time it looked like it was going to be the theatrical magic of “Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter” that took the prize, but Deanna Dunagan just blew me out of the Lyttelton.)

Worst show:

well, you know, there was the pretentiousness, and then the farting jokes, and then the incoherent plot, and the boringness, and then the pretentiousness, and that’s not even including the overall horror that is what happens when you try to use rhyming couplets as a medium for telling a show. Yes, I am talking about “Fram,” a play so bad that it’s become legendary, a point of reference for badness (the “baddicle”), and the inspiration for my only rhymed review of a show. Does a play have sleeping bags, or dogs, or perhaps a reference to Westminster Abbey, or even a banquet scene? Then, sir, you may be hearing a joke about how it makes me think of Fram. One member of my party had to leave in a rush at intermission due to an impending panic attack; I had to buy drinks for the remaining members of my party (who trickled out at the end of intermission) as an apology for inviting them. Who knows: perhaps some day the National will remount Carrie: The Musical as an apt pairing with this other turkey. God only knows it is good to support new works but sometimes you can take it too far.

Weirdest show:

the “Shen Yu Divine Performing Arts Ensemble Chinese Spectacular gets the prize here. I’m a big fan of Chinese culture, but when you combine cheesy special effects with a religious revival, you get me looking for the doors. I’ve never seen a mainstage performance that was also pushing a political and religious agenda at the same time, and nowhere on the promotional literature did it say that this was the Fa Lun Gung religious cult’s take on China, Chinese culture, and Chinese art – with lots of pro-Fa Lun Gung songs, done in a horrible European style, sandwiched between the dance bits. I prefer to keep my dance separated from my politics, and I don’t like people doing a bait and switch like happened here – telling me I was going to see “art” and instead giving me a bunch of “religion.” I much preferred the Peony Pavillion, which gave me a chance to see a truly classical Chinese performance (and over three nights!).

Best cheap place to eat before a show:

there were a few great entries in this category this year. Paul’s given up its Covent Garden crown in favor of Wahaca; Bangalore Express has the Old Vic and Young nicely covered; but the restaurant I dreamed of was 19 Numara Bos Cirrik, around the corner from the Arcola. It’s the only restaurant that made me look for excuses to be in the neighborhood. Mmm, meat! (And there’s another one around the corner from the Hackney, but I only go there at panto time so that didn’t influence me much.)

Best website for London theatre fans:

there’s a lot of shows out there, and while price is important in determining which to see, it’s even more important (to me) that I not waste my time on turkeys (Thanksgiving is only once a year!). So I thank the West End Whingers not just for being attentive to the many things that can make a good evening better, but also to the horrible, glaring, single thing that can make an evening bad: a completely crap show. They’ve sent me to shows I wouldn’t have considered (Zorro) and done their best to save me from the dogs (Gone With The Wind – The Musical! – saved! Fram – oops), all while doing so with a writing style that keeps me entertained consistently (more than I can say for many of the shows they’ve seen). They even inspired me to do my own blog. Thanks, Phil and Andrew!

Best website for London theatre deals:

of all of the things people seem interested in reading about on this site, it’s my post on the 12 best ways to get cheap theater tickets in London that keeps the punters coming. So I’ve started adding more deals to the site as I see them come through. That said, for me personally, has done the most to make it possible for ME to see as many shows as I do. I don’t have an unlimited budget, and when times are tight, I know I can pop over to their site with a good chance of being able to find something for £10-£15. I can’t always find the show I want when I want it, and I’m occasionally going to get not very good seats, but when the option is not going at all … to me, it’s more important to have been there and seen most of it than to have not been able to go at all. Thanks, – and for the rest of you people who keep trying to flog your crappy, overpriced scalper seats on my site – buzz off!


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 – “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 – 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 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 – 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.


Review – Lady from the Sea – Arcola Theatre

May 16, 2008

I don’t know about how you like to celebrate anniversaries, but to me nothing seemed better than going up to the ass end of north east London to see a show about a woman thinking about leaving her husband. Sounds romantic, eh? And if you’re me (and the ever-suffering Shadowdaddy, you’ll want to start of the night with some Jamaican food hot enough to peel the enamel off of your teeth. Mmm, mmm! Jerk chicken, rice and peas, stewed pork, polenta, $16 for two people, Centerprise, you make the grade! (We also got to see a guy chased out of the restaurant by the cashier and the store guard, who called him a crook. It was quite a scene. Review of restaurant here.) Then it was off to the Oz Antepilier for some tasty Turkish baklava to keep our strength up while we waited in the lobby of the Arcola for the mad dash for our seats.

Anyway, I studiously avoided reading anything that might give me too much of a clue as to the actual plot of the show beforehand as I enjoy having a show unfold and surprise me – I figured the 5 star recommendation it had got somewhere was sufficient, plus Ibsen, for me to watch. The play, in a nutshell, is this: there is a woman, and she is feeling trapped in her marriage. She has stepchildren who seem extraordinarily unsympathetic to her, and, to top things off, she seems like she might be going mad.

Well! Quite the light evening’s entertainment, to be sure. For me, for some reason, the whole show was coming in through the filter of these two articles I read in the New York Times this week about love in Saudi Arabia. The men, for example, would have found it completely fit for a man to tell a woman she’s not a free actor, and that he will decide what is good for her and “protect” her: while the women, I thought, would agree that women are naturally less rational than men.

But they would have had a lot of problems with the rest of the story. The concept of a woman wishing to be a free agent, I think, would not resonate in the least; the thought that it might not be agreeable to essentially “sell” yourself in order to have a roof over your head would also seem mysterious; the odd behavior of the girls (not to mention the wife, Ellida, played by Lia Williams) would certainly have drawn note. I found it all a bit late Victorian feminist, but with a sort of unexpected (and illogical) ending – and very much enjoyed the idea of a play about someone who was on the verge of cracking up throughout.

That said, I think I found more problems with the script than anything else. It just seemed … clunky. People kept announcing other people were about to come on stage, then announcing that they were going to leave. The young, wannabe artist had no real purpose in the show other than to show the selfish side of men (I think) and had utterly corny lines (and pulled faces); the younger daughter (Hilde, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, apparently from the Irish side of this family based on her thick accent) seemed to change her feelings too quickly. The foreshadowing at the beginning (the bit about the painting) was like getting hit with a blackjack in terms of its subtlety, then further added to this point by having the actor say, “The idea was given to me by the lady of the house!” Please, as if the fact that she swims in the ocean every day wasn’t enough clue for us to link her with a mermaid!

While the acting was generally good, Ms. Williams seemed to be pulling rather a lot from Lady Macbeth with all of her hand wringing and twitching. Her face was beautiful to watch but I wanted more of a buildup – as it was, I was completely incapable of thinking anything but madness lied in her future.

Overall I think this was a good production but not one of Ibsen’s finer works, and the 75 minute journey home a bit of a pill – good enough if you like Ibsen or are in the neighborhood, but not worth seriously deforming your week to go see.

(This review is for a performance that took place May 15th, 2008, my fifteenth anniversary.)


Marguerite the Musical – the search for cheap tickets continues!

April 22, 2008

My uncle, a big fan of new theater, is coming to visit in June, and I’m planning to have a week full of fun for him. He’s retired so very cost conscious, which makes him extremely amenable to cheap seats up near the roof. I’ve managed to book us some decent seats for The Revenger’s Tale on Saturday the 14th of June. It’s not really new but since it’s £10 a pop, it hits a lot of other criteria quite nicely. (The summer season just went on sale at the National, so now’s the time to grab those £10 Travellex seats for the prime Friday and Saturday slots.) This puts me back to figuring out how to get us tickets for two other shows – Powder Her Face (an opera at the Linbury) and Marguerite, a brand-new musical based on La Dame Aux Camelias, which I’ve heard of but otherwise no nothing about (not being so big on opera).

Now, official tickets for Marguerite (per their website) are in the pricey range – £63 and £58 for stalls, £43 for upper circle, £27 for “cattle class”/nosebleeds. (which has screwed up by not listing it in the musicals section) is not really doing better, but does have an amusing £25 deal in which (it appears) you get the equivalent of a free meal at Pizza Express along with your crummy pigeon-loft seats. This is a real disappointment to me because when I see shows at the Haymarket, I like to eat across the street at Galileo, which has genuinely good Italian food and a killer £10 prix fixe pre-theater meal deal (plus the owner is really funny and always very welcoming to me). So I did a search for “Marguerite the Musical” on Google, and what did I find – gallery seats on some site called for a mere £15. That will get me dining at the restaurant of my choice. Next stop, the Royal Opera House for Powder Her Face tickets, perfect for that hard to fill Sunday afternoon slot. Now, when will they release some more tickets?