Posts Tagged ‘London’

Review – England – The Whitechapel Gallery

June 11, 2009

I enjoy site specific art – dance, theater, installation, whatever – so England was a must-see for me. Site specific art not only takes advantage of the location to enhance the production – it can change the way you see a place, leaving traces of its magic behind. I’ve never seen a play done inside an art gallery (though I’ve seen many performances in art galleries, especially Phoenix’s Icehouse and its predecessor, Crash), so after reading a preview in a local free paper, I set up a time to see it.

Well … it’s two days later and I can’t really find much to say about it. Two actors (Tim Crouch and Hannah Ringham) move around the main space of the Whitechapel Gallery, occasionally talking about the artist who’s showing, but mostly building a story in which they both represent a person who 1) has a boyfriend 2) collects art (sort of) and 3) lives in a jam factory in Southwark. They smile almost manically during the show like they’d both taken happy drugs, allowing them to develop a supremely profound ironic effect as they move beyond representing the life of a particular person and into representing the person as they deal with a fatal medical condition. It’s all done in the present tense, and it’s all a monologue (in the first half), and their grin as they talk about how it feels to be dying and how their boyfriend is reacting are just … creepy. It’s amazing how the facial expressions convince us that we should be expecting something else to be said, or, perhaps, that the person isn’t upset about what is happening to them. Really, the narrator seems to have little emotional response to events at all. It’s quite bizarre.

The second half (in which we are allowed to sit, though there are stools in the gallery if you’re not able to handle half an hour of legging it on cement) takes place in an auditorium, and the two actors now perform the parts of a person who has just had a heart transplant (possibly the narrator before, though it’s not necessary for them to be the same) and a translator who is speaking for the widow of the heart donor. It’s quite creepy and, I think, a fine bit of script that would actually have benifitted greatly from being performed in a different space – it all just felt too much like a conference room and not a bit like a hospital in a third world country. But it raised interesting questions about ethics and the world around us and, well, I liked it. Still, the piece as a whole didn’t really benefit from the site it was performed in, and the site itself did not gain from the performance as I would have liked it to – even though it did succeed in drawing visitors who might not otherwise have gone. Me, I’d rather see the whole thing done in an empty warehouse. As a whole, though, it wasn’t very moving and I’m chalking it up as “an experience.”

(This review is for a performance seen on Tuesday, June 9th, 2009. England’s final performance is Tuesday, June 16th. For an alternate view, see the Guardian.)

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Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical – Palace Theatre

April 1, 2009

Monday night J and I went to the Palace Theatre to see the much hoo-hahed “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert the musical. I was quite chary of seeing this show for many reasons, the first being that with as much money behind it as it has, I figured it would be the kind of wide-appeal, commercial clap-trap I usually avoid like the plague; the second being that it was at The Palace, home of the worst seats I’ve ever experienced in London. But then I saw the West End Whingers’ drooling review. My God, I thought, I may be mistaken! In fact, their review filled me with an incredible desire to drop everything and see the show. However, I was further discouraged when I read that premium seats were going for £95. I mean, Jesus Christ, what do these people think they’re selling? The only 20 seats with an unobstructed view in the entire theater? And for me, these last two months have been ones of theatrical penury as I penny-pinched in a somewhat backwards-looking attempt to cover the cost of my recent move.

Fortunately, LastMinute.com came through with a sweet little £40 sale that was *erk* a bit out of budget but doable with an extra-added dedication to home cooking and staying out of pubs. And I read somewhere (sorry I can’t quote it!) that the costumes are fantastic but likely to start wearing down quickly with heavy use and that it might be a good plan to see the show early in the run while they are still fresh. So rather than waiting for affordable tickets to pop up in another eight months or so, I was able to see the show only a week after opening night! I even got main floor tickets, though Row F seats 28 and 29 meant we were a bit far to the edge, yet not sitting under the overhang like poor 30 and 31 (though 31 got to go on stage and dance with the cast, so there ARE advantages)! However, I was able to see all of the stage clearly – even though a tiny bit of the curtain waaay up in the left corner that said “you are here” (next to a map of Australia, in the center). So, overall, I was happy with my seats.

And the crowd was good, too – the house seemed packed and everyone was very “up” – and of course there were lots of gay men there and people of both genders with bottom-lit cocktails in their hand acting like they were ready to have a good time. Unfortunately some of them appear to have not been taught their “company manners,” as the woman sitting beside me insisted on TALKING OVER THE SONG that opened the second act. Jesus Christ woman, if you can’t shut your yap, maybe you oughta stay home, huh? There are LIVE PEOPLE ON STAGE SINGING and I am PAYING TO HEAR THEM, not you. However, people were generally so cheery -laughing and radiating energy – that for once I did not turn around and give her the shit-eye because I didn’t want to ruin the mood.

But, I digress.

I have still not seen this movie despite being in many ways part of its target audience, so I was unfamiliar with the story behind it, which appears to be as follows: A mediocre drag queen (Tick, played by Jason Donovan, whom I also had not heard of, but please remember that before I moved to the UK I had also never heard of this Kylie girl), decides to drive from Melbourne to Alice Springs to meet his 6 year old son, and convinces his old friend Bernadette (Tony Sheldon), a retired transsexual of the old-school drag regime, and Adam/Felicia (Oliver Thornton), a white-hot newcomer, to join him with the promise that they will have a gig at a casino. But first, they need to cross the Outback in a giant silver bus (Priscilla), going through one after another hick town on their way to the middle of nowhere. Hilarity ensues.

I mean, seriously, that was pretty much the plot. Character development? An increase in self-knowledge? Nope, none of that here, and certainly no political statements of any sort (other than a bit of “why do these people hate us,” but even that was thin and only came up once), which was actually a bit of a relief. No, this show was all about big silly costumes, sight gags, and fun disco tunes, as performed by the leads and a cracking cast that were truly diverse. Actually, I wanna do a shout-out to Wezley Sebastian (Miss Understanding) and the other tall drag-queen looking person who were in so many of the ensemble scenes, because even at the very end these workhorses were performing every scene like they were the stars and they expected people to be watching them. It was really quite impressive!

But … really … it still wasn’t … it just wasn’t as good as Anything Goes. I mean, I realize I have different standards for musicals than other people, but I found the songs didn’t compensate for plot. I mean, it would have all been fine in a disco, but I can’t get excited about a night of watching people lipsynch to songs that have mediocre lyrics at best (though I appreciated that they had the lovely divas overhead actually singing). The opportunity to hear songs that brilliantly illustrate a story is actually a major reason I enjoy musicals, and this just wasn’t happening for Priscilla. Also, the voice of the women singers was positively tinny. I think this is just a problem with the whole “people singing through microphones” phenomenon – I mean, basically, if they’re not trained to sing to the back of the stage, they’re going to sing with this weak little head-voice that just has no power to it. This is not the kind of voice that would inspire today’s drag queens – and it sure as hell didn’t inspire me.

There was a fair bit to laugh about (such as the completely crude scene with the mail-order bride and the ping-pong balls and a hysterical pair of sagging falsies) and truly amazing costumes (the dancing cupcakes about made me cry, but basically anything that Oliver Thornton put on suddenly looked much better than it had any right to), but I just wasn’t caught up in it like I was hoping to! I’ll blame a bit of this on Mr. Donovan, whom I thought was just flat out dry and not really either an exciting performer or even a slightly gifted singer. Tony Sheldon was quite good, a perfect incarnation of the role (and an actor I’ll be watching out for in future productions) and talented as all get-out, and Oliver Thornton was just a brilliant shining star who shone across the stage with super-nova intensity, but with so much of the action focused on Tick … eh, well, I guess that’s why there were so many dance numbers. At any rate, if you’re looking for a good night out with the boys or a great hen party activity, this would probably be a great show for you to catch, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for. I probably just ought to go see that bare-bones Cole Porter show they’re doing at Sadler’s Wells so I can get what I need out of a night of musical theater.

(The reviewed performance took place Monday, March 30th, 2009. The bus did break down at one point and they had to entertain us while they fixed it. Remember, if you have an aisle seat toward the front of the stalls, you may get to dance on stage. Pity I missed my chance for my big West End debut!)

Review – Darwin’s Big Idea – Natural History Museum, London

December 9, 2008

On Saturday my uncle and I went to the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History museum. Though there were substantial lines to get into the museum (due to bag checks), there were none for the exhibit itself, which I was glad of, and we had a Southwest Trains “two fer” coupon that cut the cost right down. Inside, it was fairly quiet; this wasn’t the kind of exhibit you’d want to take a very young child to, as most of it involved reading.

The exhibit itself was a melange of live animals (only two), reproduced Galapagos scenes (kind of like dioramas, I suppose), actual specimens collected by Darwin (including beetles and birds), stuffed specimens displaying the difference in species (I found the stuffed tortoises very sad – they could easily have still been alive today! – but then when I read that boats would come by the island and take 700 at a time to stuff the holds with fresh meat, it rather dulled my outrage), fossils, actual letters written by or to Darwin, a recreation of his study at his post-London home, facsimiles of letters and plant samples, skeletons, illustrative diagrams, and a few movies. It followed his life from the time he was approached to be the naturalist on the Beagle to some of the post-“Origin of Species” brouhaha, then went into the impact of his theories on modern scientific thinking and how it’s been able to predict things that have been confirmed with genetic sequencing.

I found this exhibit quite engaging, and not just because I had the opportunity to look at “the actual letter encouraging Darwin’s dad to let him go sailing!” and “the actual birds Darwin collected on the Galapagos!” The exhibit really focused on the evolution of his thought, which I found fascinating. I was certainly intrigued just by how a person who was expecting to become a minister went on to become a respected scientist and author – the whole idea of needing to get one’s parent to agree to accepting a job was shocking to me! – but the exhibit included a lot about his earlier fascination with collecting and classifying things that made it seem like this was a really natural progression for him to make. And the impact of seeing animals so very alike separated merely by a sea channel, and of seeing animals that so clearly looked to be related, somehow, to the fossils that were just lying on the ground (in Argentina) – it made it clear how he put his connections together and came up with the idea that animals evolved into other animals and we weren’t just living in a state of “everything wot God put here 6000 years ago and wot hasn’t changed since.”

I was also surprised to realize Darwin was quite aware of how controversial his conclusions would be, and that he actually postponed releasing them for some 20 years, waiting until the time was right (and had disagreements about them with his wife, who was terribly worried she wouldn’t see him in heaven, and with the captain of the Beagle, whom I think considered Darwin a heretic). I was reminded of Galileo being forced to recant his theory of the earth revolving around the sun at the hands of the Vatican – who’d think that the hand of religion would still be strangling scientists in Victorian times? – but clearly, science and “obviousness” will never be enough for those who can’t trust the facts placed squarely in front of them when it conflicts with what they want to be true.

Anyway – it was a good exhibit, and I recommend it to those who are interested in this sort of thing.

(Darwin’s Big Idea continues through April 19th, 2009. Two for one ticket vouchers can be printed off of the Southwest Trains website – look for the “Days Out” link.)

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 – La Clique – London Hippodrome

October 4, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance Company – “Proprius” – Covent Garden Piazza

September 13, 2008

Today I had the good luck to be able to make it to the Royal Opera House just in time to see an outdoor performance of Wayne McGregor’s Random Dance Company’s new work, “Proprius.” I was, of course, there to see the various events of the Ignite Festival – but the luck came in because I didn’t think I was going to be able to make it at all. You see, I have someone visiting me from America this week, and this person doesn’t care for theater-type stuff, and this has meant that I, for all intents and purposes, have been living a life of Total Abstinence. Aaargh. In fact, we were supposed to spend the day at the Leighton House, because said house guest enjoys architecture, and I was going to have to abandon my dreams of spending my day surrounded my installation art and fresh new dance stuff. WAH!

And yet … my friend came down with a cold, and she was too tired to go out, so suddenly we were able to do anything we wanted to and off we went to Covent Garden, for the arts festival I’ve been wanting to go to for well over six weeks. At the very moment we arrived, people were just getting arranged on stage for “Proprius.” I said, is this not kismet? I sat down on the cobblestones (see my point of view here) and got ready to watch the performance – not having read a single thing about it. Ah, well, it’s hardly the first time.

The key element of Proprius is, obviously, the fact that it has a huge cast of London school kids in what seemed to be the 8-14 year range. The dance started with these young folk on stage, about ten of them, a real panoply of faces and body types. It looked to me not like they had been plucked from dance schools, but rather that they were completely unaccustomed to the vocabulary of modern dance. What I was watching was them interpreting a language I knew very well through their own, untuned bodies (and to some extent minds – I’m sure it was very new to them). Wayne’s movement style is very familiar to me – a way of doing trust falls, of lifting and carrying other dancers, of turning people using your heels, of balancing in a way that’s just not quite standard in modern dance – a way I find far more intimate and involved than most modern dance, and certainly ballet – that totally says, “This is something Wayne McGregor created.” It’s a language that is as clearly itself as Chinese or Japanese – I would never mistake it for Korean just because it was in a different context. And it’s difficult, and it’s, I think, not something people wrap their heads around easily – it doesn’t really have a basis in the “language of dance” that people outside of modern dance aficionados have in their heads (think of ballroom dancing or club dancing or even how people dance in musicals – it’s not modern dance at all).

And yet, these kids got it. They lifted and carried, they leaned and moved, they bounced off of each other, they did their best to be the dancers they had been asked to be, and they carried it off. They weren’t just trained monkeys moving into position as asked (a problem for me with nearly any performance involving children is a certain robotic approach to what they’re doing, as if the independence had been stamped out of them); they looked at each other and thought and got into it and they danced. I was really absorbed by them and their difference from usual dancers; the youngest ones (especially the boys) were a bit gawky, the older girls were frequently of a more normal body type than dancer women are (which made them move differently, though their own inexperience seemed to be the real delimiter of movement style), and their faces communicated more than they may have wanted to. (I especially felt for one girl who got kicked in the face by someone else who couldn’t see where she was; she looked pretty unhappy, but big points to her for soldiering on.)

I realized while I was watching them that they actually represented a lot more of what I think London is like than I ever see in dance troupes; profoundly multi-cultural, with a range of life experiences. They also danced like they really cared about doing it well. I got bizarrely excited about this, in part because I get frustrated about how overwhelmingly white (or perhaps culturally segregated) dance tends to be. I was reminded of the Ballet Black show that I had found so disappointing several months back. These kids showed enthusiasm and embraced the technique so well that I wondered if any of them harbored dreams of being dancers. Why couldn’t this be the school performance of the ROH’s ballet school? I wanted to watch their technique continue to develop!

AHEM. Interspersed between the sets done by the groups of kids – there seemed to be about forty of them, and they were dancing in groups of ten to twelve – were sets done by the adult members of Random Dance. They were doing the usual McGregory moves – curling over each other, carrying each other, making me go gah! as they balanced on one foot then raised the other leg to be parallel to their bodies (with their feet next to their heads!), being tight and thoughtful and gorgeous and making me wish I always sat so close to the stage when watching dancers.

I was fascinated by the difference between the adults and the children. Clearly there was a huge discrepancy in terms of professionalism, but in addition to the variation/benefit ten years of dance training will make, there was also the change that the aging had done in terms of development of muscles and bodies. These dancers could do more because they had more to do it with. In some ways, it was like listening to language spoken by skilled adults, complete with rhymes, puns, and literary allusions. (Alas, I took no notes and cannot discuss the dance in much more detail than this.)

About two thirds of the way through the piece, a very different group of young dancers came on stage. I was pretty curious about what was going on – many of them were wearing glasses and they stood and carried themselves differently. I realized that, in his groups of kids, Wayne had added in a batch of developmentally disabled kids. “Wow,” I thought. I have never seen kids like this dance on stage. What was going to happen?

Well, what happened is that these kids, who’d clearly been rehearsing along with the rest of the group, got out there and danced. The vocabulary was still the same, and their faces were far more communicative than even the other kids’ were, and they did show their frustration visibly at times (I think there may have been some confusion about what was supposed to be happening), but they still moved, and moved in ways that were clearly recognizable as a choreographed dance. It felt a bit like Wayne had done some things to make the movement such that it might be more clearly cued off of other dancers’ movement, so that they were helping each other figure out what to do next, and there wasn’t so much in the way of lifts and trust falls – but they weren’t being coached by someone standing on stage, they were doing it on their own. And I thought, wow, this is so cool. We really do have a group of dancers that really reflects the richness of London. I liked seeing that on stage. They weren’t being pandered to or talked down to, and we as the audience weren’t being talked down to, either. I felt like, this is our community, these kids are a part of our community, and we’re all sharing in this experience of what dance is and how it “sounds” different depending on who is speaking it but the words and the language structure are still the same. And I was really proud of Mr. McGregor for really going for it, and for making it successful, and for treating these kids with respect as performers just as much as he had the other group.

The final bit was the adult dancers performing with the kids from earlier in the performance, and I loved it. The adults were really into it, seeming to be very enthused by working with the more inexperienced dancers – not at all bored or put upon, but rather wanting to very much see these girls (I think it was mostly girls for the last bit) look good and do their best and make a good showing. And the kids rose to the challenge. One girl, a black girl with curly golden braids, just sort of turned into a professional dancer in front of my eyes when she partnered with a gorgeous male Random Dance company member – she stood up straight, she looked completely serious, she moved great, SHE rose to be as good of a partner for him as he was for her. It reminded me of how, when I sing with someone who’s a great piano player, I suddenly find all of these notes and ornamentation coming out of my mouth that I didn’t know were going to be there It was fantastic and very energizing for me as an audience member.

Overall, I found this a really uplifting performance and a real pleasure. McGregor didn’t compromise his choreography because he expected less of his dancers (I mean, technically clearly he didn’t try to get them to do moves they couldn’t, but the intelligence of his dance was in no way diluted), and I felt, as an audience member, really pleased by what I got to see.

And after this there were so many cool things to see inside the opera house for the rest of the festival! (Alas, no time to review them today.) Ultimately my only regret was that I couldn’t see all of the installations and performances in the time remaining me (especially the “Chocolate Tasting: Interactive” event – just my kind of art). I do really hope Ignite becomes a regular event at the ROH and every year we celebrate the birth of the new season with a weekend of riotous, thought-provoking installations, events, and performances in the friendly confines of Covent Garden and the Royal Opera House.

(This review is for the 2 PM performance that took place on Saturday, September 13th. Proprius will be performed again September 14th at 1 and 3 PM in Covent Garden in the corner in front of the Royal Opera House entrance. Admission is free.)

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 – “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 – Singalonga “Hairspray” – Prince Charles Cinema

July 21, 2008

This is a guest review from K, who took a Saturday afternoon to go to the Prince Charles Cinema to check out the Singalonga version of the movie Hairspray
Sing-a-Long Hairspray at the Prince Charles

Apparently, “the first ever sing-a-long happened at an old people’s home in Inverness. The nurses wanted to involve the old people in an interactive group therapy and so screened Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and gave out song sheets so that everyone could sing-a-long”. A Sing-a-Long was then held at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in London in 1999 and subsequently ran at the Prince Charles Cinema, where it has found a permanent home. A global franchise has now developed: The Sound of Music is probably its signature show, but it also encompasses Joseph, Annie, Rocky Horror and now Hairspray. And soon, Abba.

Waiting outside the Prince Charles on Saturday afternoon, I could see that the audience for the show was going to be enthusiastic. A lot of them were wearing 1950s/60s outfits. Some of them were in costume as characters from the show. Almost all of them were female – this is apparently standard for the Sing-a-Longs. When we’d settled into our seats, we found the row behind us was mainly made up of pre-teens, which was reassuring. There are ten-year-olds who know all the words to Hairspray. That makes me very happy.

Before the film started, a cheerful and bossy woman in a wig told us what was in our plastic bags – a bell to ring during I Can Hear the Bells, a piece of sparkly fabric to wave during Welcome to the 60s, cards to hold up during Without Love, and so on. We had different noises to make when the different characters came on – wolf-whistles for Link, boos and hisses for the von Tussles and Penny’s mother, and so on. She made us stand up and practise our dance moves. I was glad I’d chosen my companion for the event carefully: P is, like me, a massive fan of Hairspray, and, not like me, an extrovert. He danced and waved and joined in, and I did too, but it took me a while to warm up to it all. It probably would have been easier at an evening showing after a couple of drinks.

There was a fancy dress competition – two in fact, one for adults and one for children – and then the film started. Watching a film in a Sing-a-Long atmosphere changes it, I found. You’re always waiting to join in. It’s now an interactive experience, not a passive one. After the first couple of numbers I started relaxing about it all, and I did enjoy singing along to everything. And dancing, although the amount of dancing you can do standing in a row of cinema seats is limited – I wonder what it would be like holding a Sing-a-Long in a nightclub? I even waved my various accessories, and the experience of holding up a placard saying ‘Integration not Segregation’ during I Know Where I’m Going was actually rather moving.

Ultimately, Hairspray is a great film, and being in a cinema full of other people who loved it and wanted to celebrate it was a feelgood experience. P and I came out smiling, although we admitted our feelings about the event were mixed. Maybe it would have helped to have had people at the front, as Rocky Horror does, to help us get in the mood. Maybe it felt a little too much like organised fun. I would definitely say that this is a show for people who have already seen the film and loved it – anything less and I think you’d feel out of place. I’d also suggest a couple of drinks beforehand. But maybe I’m just too English and introverted.

Review – Hairspray – Shaftesbury Theatre, London

July 10, 2008

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

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

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

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

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