Posts Tagged ‘Melly Still’

Review – Nation – National Theatre

November 15, 2009

I am afraid I did not enjoy Nation. Perhaps I went for the wrong reasons: my best friend loves Terry Pratchett, and I loved Melly Still’s direction of Coram Boy. Both of us frequently love children’s theater.

But, but, but.

The story, for those who don’t know it (I didn’t): it’s roughly 1850 in a parallel universe (one in which there was no Queen Victoria, but it’s still basically this world), and a tidal wave has left 15-ish Mau (Gary Carr, very solid acting and very YUM) the last person alive on his South Pacific island. The same tidal wave casts 13 year old English girl Daphne (Emily Taaffe, energetic, lovable, and thus clearly also doing a nice job) on the island along with the ship’s parrot Milton (charmingly portrayed by Jason Thorpe). The kids become friends and have to start making a new life and culture, a new nation, on what’s left to them of the old – the wreckage of Mau’s people and Daphne’s ship. They are joined by other people from more distant islands, eventually, and conflict develops from Mau’s attempt to create a truly new world and the other people’s wishes to stick to their old. Then, in a more traditional plot mold, a scary other survivor of the shipwreck has become the leader of an island of cannibals … and (for reasons clearly having to do with “keeping the story moving forward” and little else) wants to see Daphne dead. Of course he will have to come to the island she is on and have a showdown at some point. The show is just that kind of surprising.

For some reason that I can’t help but feel has to do with the “children’s play” the National chose to make of this book, there is rather a lot of singing and dancing, and this is pretty much where it started to lose me. The singing, while in tune, is just flat out horrible and insipid and ACK and does NOT add anything to the show.

Even worse and absolutely insulting is the horrible dancing they pastiched in. Parallel universe or not, this show should have really made a bit of effort to pull in actual Pacific Island dance traditions instead of some half-baked crap that didn’t have a bit of nod to the real thing other than grass skirts. Pacific Island dance is so amazing, and so fantastic for men to perform, that it was a fist in the gut to watch this fakey-fakey hoodoo garbage on stage. Maybe I’m a little protective of my Hawaiian compatriots and the tradition they are a part of (Tahitian dance also being a big favorite and SO fun to watch), but this was like some horrible “white man does all-cultures-are-the-same” BS that just stuck in my craw. The sad thing was that if they had gone for the real thing, this show could have become genuinely special and given something truly unique back to London theater audiences. Instead, it was … bad.

Unfortunately, rather than just a few awful moments of dance polluting a great night, instead what happened is that most of the first act just wandered around aimlessly, not pulled down by the dance all that much because, in fact, it just didn’t have very far down to go. Story-wise, the kids worked through the language issue; someone has a baby; there are discussions about God. It was like having someone read through the various chapters of Robinson Crusoe as he figures out how to solve one puzzle after another. There were no fresh insights to the characters or moments of lasting beauty; it was just boring. I thought about leaving after the interval, but it wasn’t actually awful … and my row J center upper balcony seats had a nice view … and I wanted to be able to finish my review … and I didn’t want to insult my friends by leaving … so I stayed. (PaulInLondon did not. However, most of the audience appeared to stay, so clearly few people found it intolerable.)

Anyway, the second act moved a little better, as a lot of the threads of the first came to fruition (and there was a magnificent duel on a boat that took full advantage of everything the National has to offer technically), but it couldn’t wash the taste of disappointment out of my mouth. Kids plays can be better than this. With more than a week until the official opening of the play (November 24th), here’s hoping Mark Ravenhill cuts a good 20 minutes from the first act and somebody pumps up the dance scenes. Otherwise … I’d say if you’re looking for a fun family night out, hit the Hackney Empire’s Aladdin panto, which will be entertaining from start to finish, feature songs that engage your brain, and cost a hell of a lot less than this did. Otherwise, a rousing game of charades played at home will likely provide better entertainment and prove more memorable in the long run.

(Nation continues at the National Theatre until March 28th, 2010. This review is for a preview performance seen on November 14, 2009. There is some swearing: “asshole,” “bugger,” possibly “fuck” and definitely “is a frog’s ass watertight.” PaulInLondon‘s review is now up.)

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Review – Cinderella – Lyric Hammersmith

November 30, 2008

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

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

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

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

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