Posts Tagged ‘London’

Review – Dickens Unplugged – The Comedy Theatre

June 27, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – “The Quiz” – Trafalgar Studios

June 25, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter – Kneehigh Theatre at The Cinema Haymarket

June 18, 2008

(This, my favorite show of 2008, is now in New York City at Studio 54. Both The New York Times and blogger Steve On Broadway love this show – don’t miss it!)

Several months ago I heard about a unique hybrid production of the movie of Brief Encounter and the play that inspired it (Still Life), presented in the cinema where the movie premiered back in the day (restored to its glory for the show). I was intrigued but held off going so that I could attend with a gaggle of my friends. Time passed, the event hadn’t been organized, and my uncle was in town looking for a show to fill the slot on Sunday (which in London means slim pickins, no doubt about it). Torn between seeing an opera none of us had much of an interest in and a show that I personally was quite interested in, based on a movie my uncle loved, it wasn’t too hard to make the argument for skipping Covent Garden in favor of the Cinema Haymarket.

And what a good choice it was! Brief Encounter is pure theatrical magic. I can hardly sing its praises highly enough. In part, I think, I just didn’t know what to expect – I thought it was going to be people performing the dialogue in front of a movie screen. This did happen – for about the first five minutes of the show … but as it was performed, two of the actors were in the audience, and one of the “actors” was on the screen, addressing one of the people in the audience – so it was completely unlike the audience participation version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was kind of what I thought the show was going to be like.

Instead, what we got was a full-fledged multi-media show with just that clip of film as its basis, with live music and multi-tasking character actors (a cast of eight, I think?) that occasionally sang and danced and even bounced up and down in unison to indicate the passage of a train. Our star-crossed lovers, Laura (Naomi Frederick) and Alec (Tristan Sturrock) plunged into it all whole-heartedly, taking us on a boating trip, dancing in the air with joy, being kind and thoughtful to each other, and falling in love in most heart-rending fashion.

Meanwhile the rest of the brilliant cast was hamming it up in a variety of roles my uncle claimed saw little screen time in the original, but which added a lot of texture (in the form of two other love affairs) and provided the opportunity for all sorts of hijinks. It all ended in a fairly melancholy way, but we were so energized from the rest of the show, who could care? And as to the (American) woman in the bathroom who said that she didn’t remember Brief Encounter being a comedy – I say, you make a show that works in the medium you’re using, and this was a brilliant piece of theater.

My uncle, who’s retired, said Brief Encounter was worth paying full price to see – and considering he paid for three tickets, I consider that quite a compliment. (The matinee wasn’t available at the TKTS booth, although it often is for evening shows.) Also, after seeing four plays in four days (six for him), we all agreed that this was the best of the bunch – the icing on the cake for his trip to London. For me, it’s the best play I’ve seen in at least three months, possibly the year to date, and the only one that I’d go see again.

Revew – The Revenger’s Tragedy – National Theatre

June 16, 2008

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

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

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

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

Links about ballet and show reviews

June 15, 2008

I came home from watching “The Revenger’s Tragedy” last night and fooled around online instead of writing up my review. My goal was to read a review of the play I’d held off reading until after the show (though I found even a second), but there was lots of other good stuff on there I’d missed, like a review of “Dances at a Gathering” (which made me feel good that I’d left after it was over and not stayed for the second half of the evening) and a great discussion about the future of ballet (the idea being the culture here is closed and that new works aren’t really being promoted). It made me get excited about the idea of going to San Francisco for their new works season next year.

What? Theater on Sundays? What about my day of rest?

June 5, 2008

In what I think will pass as the best theater news of this week, this month, and, possibly, this year, it appears that The National Theatre will be doing shows on Sundays starting in September. This is fantastically good news to me as Sundays have traditionally been slim pickin’s, and this policy has been a real thorn in my side when entertaining out of town guests. On the other hand, it’s made it easy for me to make Sundays the day where I literally don’t plan on doing things, letting me go to musuems, visit friends, and (heaven forfend) clean house and do grocery shopping. (Which reminds me – I need to get on this before my uncle comes to visit next week, but since I’m seeing Peony Pavillion on Sunday it’s going to be hard to find the time!)

In far less shocking news, Gone with the Wind is calling it quits. This is, in my mind, a total gift to any unwary theater goer – I prefer my turkeys on the table at Thanksgiving, thank you very much. It did provide the opportunity for some truly spectacular blogging, but, yet again, if I’m looking to strip the paint off of the walls, I’d rather go to the hardware store. Wait, no, that’s not true, such blistering reviews are actually really fun to read, but, still, it’s good to hear it’s being put out of its misery. One wonders what’s held Lord of the Rings up for as long as it has – sticks? I saw a woman on the tube with a whole bag full of merchandise from the show last night and I was really wondering just what had come over her.

Review – Dina Martina – The Soho Theatre

May 3, 2008

Last night we went to the Soho Theater to see Dina Martina with robot_mel, beluosus, and silkyraven.

Dina was totally on and the show was a hoot, filled with many Seattlites (including Imogen Love, of all people). I think I was most hurting when she was singing some horrible eighties song, clutching the microphone stand between her legs, and I noticed it slowly disappearing in the horrible folds of her camel toes. Then, to make it worse (better?) she came to our group of front-row seats and straddled beluosus’s leg, and suddenly I imagined him disappearing into the depths just as the microphone stand had. It was hysterical and horrifying at the same time – sort of a perfect Dina moment. Best Dina-ism? Referring to the people suffering from the Iraq invasion as the “Iraqnids.” It was all quite perfect.

Hamlet – Northern Ballet Theatre – Sadler’s Wells

April 23, 2008

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

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

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

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

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. LastMinute.com (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 DiscountTheatre.com 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?

Slippery Mountain – Not So Loud Chinese Opera Company – New World Restaurant, London

April 13, 2008

Three weeks ago I read in the Metro that there was a Chinese opera being performed in a restaurant in Chinatown, with dim sum and tea served beforehand. And it was only an hour long! While the price seemed a bit steep (£25), it sounded to me like a great night out and I snapped up for tickets (for me, J, W, and my fellow Sinophile Mel) right away.

The restaurant (New World) had a great upstairs space with a large area cleared out for the show. We took our seats and were immediately given our snacks. Sadly, we weren’t given any sort of plates, just a round steaming dish with 1 shu mai, 1 egg roll, and 1 steamed fluffy pork bun in it. Hmm – a bit tight for the price. I was also grumpy to notice they’d got a two for one deal going that I missed out on by buying early. At the very least if I’d been aware of it I probably could have convinced a few more people to attend. We also got some other food (lamb pancakes, pork and cashew nuts, and chicken on crunchy fried noodles) to round it out, and the food was good even though we had to ask to get plates.

Our cast consisted of three demons (or monks, depending on the scene), our hero Mulian, his mom, Mulian’s tutor and stand-in demon fighter, and a woman sword specialist. The plot was, er, rather non-Western: Mulian is sent by his Buddhist superior to deal with his mother in hell, where she is about to spend eternity trying to climb Slippery Mountain to make up for her shortcomings during her lifetime (fornication while a nun being apparently a big no-no). Most of the scenes take place in hell, where the three demons sing cheerily about chopping up, burning, and torturing the souls that come their way. Their scenes allowed for a lot of vernacular dialogue, referring (for example) to “Asbos” and “insulting the Olympic torch” (the second a reason for extreme punishment). I found this all reminiscent of Panto and a good deal of fun. The dialogue was mostly in English, but Mulian’s mom spoke exclusively in Opera extreme Mandarin (I could almost follow along) and Mulian’s teacher spoke frequently in Mandarin, but for both of them, the “chorus” of demons/monks helped us follow along. Mulian’s mom’s arias were all in Chinese, but for these we had a sheet to help us follow along (as it were) and the action on stage was very helpful in demonstrating what was being said.

The show itself was not of the highest production quality, but to be honest I wasn’t expecting this in such a short production. The highlight was a battle between Mulian’s teacher and the demon swordswoman, who went head to head in staff versus double sword action. It was a blast. I was a bit sorry we didn’t get any acrobatics, but it was a small space, and hopefully I’ll get to see some this summer when the Peony Pavillion comes to town. Overall it was a good night out, and my greatest complaint was that I wished I’d had a little more tea – being able to sip a hot cup of Jasmine tea while watching a show has got to be one of the most pleasant theatrical experiences I’ve had in a long time, but our pot was long emptied before the show started up and the staff didn’t seem to want to come by the tables to refill, empty, or do anything else once they’d served up.