Posts Tagged ‘Noel Coward Theater’

Review – Shakespeare in Love – Noel Coward Theater

July 18, 2014

It’s hard to figure out how to properly review a play that’s about a movie that’s about a play. On one hand, well, Romeo and Juliet, you’re probably familiar with that; God knows several movies have been done on the theme (if not so much on the play) and God knows there have been spin-offs in other areas as well. But what is Shakespeare in Love (“the play”), really? Should the acting be judged by the standards I’d hold for Shakespeare? Or should I really be looking at it as an (urgh) adaptation of a movie and thus hold it to the much lower standards of a thrice removed adaptation based upon a blandly populist form of entertainment that, to be honest, is what this play, at its heart, is: simply an attempt to shake some shekels out of the indiscriminate theater goer?
But, to my great surprise, the commercial enterprise that is Shakespeare In Love (“the play”) has actually succeeded in creating a very enjoyable play. I’m not talking great art here: the loose treatment of history and historical ways of speaking is all too painfully on display. But honestly, if you are choosing to see this play, you still have the option of seeing Shakespeare fifteen more times in any given month (not just at the Globe but at the other 5 theaters currently doing Richard II, Richard III, Midsummer, etc.), and of seeing shows that put their high historical research front and center (RSC’s Hilary Mantel double header, yo) and, you know what? I’ve had enough Shakespeare for this entire year, and even Wolf Hall had dialogue that I’m sure was a far cry from Tudor England reality.
The plot varies not at all from the movie, as I recall (I saw it when it was new), and it is as follows: Shakespeare has writer’s block (possibly because of his loveless marriage); a young noblewoman who loves his works (she’s seen them performed for the Queen) decides to sneak into an audition as a man; as she’s a total Shakespeare fan she of course gets ;the job; Shakespeare falls in love with her (as a woman); suddenly he can write again (“the quill is full of ink” har har); the various tribulations they experience become, bit by bit, the major scenes of Romeo and Juliet – the balcony, the morning after, the utter heartbreak at separation.
In some ways, when it comes down to it, Shakespeare in Love is a play meant for Shakespeare fandom – people who know his works well enough to get all of the little throwaway lines from the non-R&J plays that are in this one and who find a storyline that is an imagining of how R&J came to be something worth two hundred minutes and fifty quid. Once I let go of “what things were REALLY like in those days” (no noblewoman woman would really think of sneaking off to be an actress) I realized I had a play that played with Shakespeare and his tropes – switched genders, hidden identities, thwarted love – in all sorts of fun ways. And it didn’t feel like a watered down movie – it was strongly theatrical, with a very basic set that could be a playhouse, the interior of a noble house, a bar, a bedchamber, et cetera but which also allowed us to believe we were at a fireworks viewing or floating down the Thames without the necessity of flying in a helicopter to help us suspend our disbelief.
This is all helped, of course, by the genuinely enthusiastic (and in no way amateurish) performances of our leads – both as themselves and when they perform Romeo and Juliet – and the strong supporting cast, who might be hamming it up but, well, I give them some leeway as with twenty actors you’ve got to put a lot of energy out there to shine. In fact, the general levels of “on” ness of the cast makes me think that what I was seeing was the kinds of performances that actors give when they feel really confident in their material and in the success of the show. They needed to play to the balconies because, well, the whole damned house was full, and is likely to be full for the extent of the run. And, as an early music buff, I’d like to applaud the music director for giving us both correct period instruments and some lovely countertenor singing, which I found nicely enhanced the mood (and which I realize could have been skipped with most people never knowing the difference – but it was well done and seemed like a little gift amongst all of the period incorrect dialogue).

So, burn out as I am, I found myself quite surprised at how much I enjoyed Shakespeare in Love, both as someone whose too, too solid heart needed melting and as a person who does, honestly, enjoy a good night’s entertainment – this was a fine show and many thanks to Official London Theatre for sponsoring this blogger’s attendance.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 16, 2014. It is booking through October 25th.)

Review – Jude Law’s Henry V – Michael Grandage Company at the Noel Coward Theatre

November 27, 2013

For fans of the long winter’s nap, I give to you the final show in Michael Grandage’s first London season, the “Jude Law Henry the Fifth,” just in time for Christmas. We’ve had a surfeit of Henrys in the last few years, but I suppose for someone who’s feeling a little inadequate about their standing in the public affections or their hairline, it must be an irresistible role. And for Grandage, we have another coup: a popular and populist play (hitting many of the old English jingoes) staffed by a movie actor not only well known but of proven mettle (he did hold down Hamlet not so long ago and thus nicely pips James Earl Jones’s Much Ado). So we’re guaranteed another series of sell-out houses and thus very likely another season of Michael Grandage produced plays, about which more presently.

But first, back to the play. Admittedly sitting in the back half of the stalls, underneath the oppressive ceiling, with the whole set looking a bit like panoramic television and my knees tucked to the side to avoid hitting the seats in front of me, I wasn’t really at my best for physically enjoying this play. But as we went through one war preparation after another and the tedious Hotspur scenes, I couldn’t help but feeling something was missing. Were the actors flat? They certainly knew their lines well enough. Was there too much play in total? It was cut down to finish up at about 10 PM, so … just what was it really that made me want to punch the air and say “Yes!” when the Dauphin said, “What a long night this is!” There was just no spark, no energy, and that’s fatal to this play and dishonest to the script. I’ve seen it done in a bunker space where the fear of war had me feeling edgy and nervous, and as a sporting match that had me cheering and laughing, but this version, dry and nerveless, has no reason to exist other than putting butts in seats. It was especially telling that of the three, count them, three women I brought with me, all of whom were excited about seeing Jude Law on stage, two of them left at the interval (both had nodded off) and the third only stayed when bribed with ice cream.

The positive side of this is that the tickets were still only 10 quid each so nobody felt like their money was wasted. But I have to have a word now with Mr Grandage about his overall season.

Dear Michael,
Of the five shows (I saw them all, I stayed all the way through the lot), only one of them was actually worth seeing: Cripple of Inishmaan. I am angry at the amount of effort and energy that has been put forth in delivering bland works to audiences in whom you appear to have little trust. Sure, a celebrity cast Shakespeare is a profit turner, but we had two of those, and the one original play done as a part of this season came off as a painful vanity project driven more by the need to showcase two very brilliant stars rather than to create a good work of theater.

I don’t regret the fifty quid I spent to get my season’s worth of tickets, and I thank you, Mr Grandage, for your effort to make theater affordable to the average Londoner. But next year, you should do MORE new works, fresher plays, and less boring old warhorses. Brilliant actors are wasted on tripe. Next year, I say seven shows: two modern, two new, one war horse, and two mini-seasons (two or three weeks each) for two really new shows that would benefit from a higher profile – things you’d normally see at the Royal Court, like Constellations and The River. We’ve got the most intelligent, best educated theater audience in the world here in London, and we deserve better. Michael Grandage, I want you to step up to the plate, step away from the trough, and really make your next year’s season the golden star it should have been in the West End’s night sky. There is no excuse for the flabby decisions you made this year.

All the best, Webcowgirl.

(This review is for for a performance that took place on Tuesday November 26, 2013.)

Review – Midsummer Night’s Dream – Michael Grandage Company at Noel Coward Theater

September 12, 2013

After a Fram-tastic night at the Old Vic’s Much Ado, I have to say I was feeling a little bit nervous about a second night of Shakespeare in a row. To make it worse, I’d just seen an outstanding Midsummer at the Tooting Arts Club – and I’ve been finding the Michael Grandage Company’s season generally pretty weak. So: their latest is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Should I go? Well, it is being done with the most excellent Sheridan Smith, and it was only ten quid for the seats I bought back in, oh, September or something last year. (FYI: Royal Circle H14 – H17, simply an outstanding view, wish I had booked for the whole season in those seats!)

And … hey, it was good! The set was lovely and fairly simple, sliding glass door/window things kind of like a ruined great house, with people in 30s-ish garb … and then suddenly the house flies away and we’re in a room with a big hole bombed out of the wall and a gigantic moon (three stories, I think!) looming over the back … the fairy wood in which most of the play would take place. The front still looked like an abandoned manor, with a spiral staircase going upstairs (to Titania’s bower) and a few chairs scattered about. It was a model of simplicity.

The acting, meanwhile, was basically what the show calls for – a dignified Hippolyta (Sheridan Smith) and Theseus, buffoonish “rude mechanicals,” silly young lovers. The fairies were done as hippies, complete with pot smoking and a sheet of acid for the “love flower;” Smith made a fetching, Janis Joplin-styled Titania, while her Oberon, with his long coat and bare chest, was six different shades of sexy. The very tall (next to Smith) David Walliams plays Bottom, and while physically he was very good for the character, I find he was a bit too much of a ham for my taste (although if a lot of the audience were actually there to see him they probably wouldn’t complain).

The show was done quite well, but in the end, I found the scenes with the lovers not as funny as they had been with the Tooting Arts Club, and I was ready to leave before Pyramus and Thisbe had finished – it’s meant to be bad, but even knowing this it wore out its welcome. Still, for ten pounds it was very enjoyable not to mention positively refreshing after the previous night’s fiasco.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, September 10th, 2013.)

Review – The Cripple of Inishmaan – Noel Coward Theater

June 12, 2013

Well, here is June and our third play of the first season of the Michael Grandage company: a show which, I assumed from the posters, was a one man jobbie with Daniel Radcliffe as the star. I imagined him grimly monologuing about his struggles as a handicapped person, but somehow got it in my mind we were going to be witness to a psychodrama in the style of “Beauty Queen of Leenane.”

Well. Rarely have my guesses from a title and publicity stills been more off. First, while occasionally dark, The Cripple of Inishmaan is a comedy. I thought maybe the preview-watching crowd I was a part of was just misreading the humor; but no, it’s pretty much comedy from the get-go. Bullying, madness, physical disabilities – what a laugh!

Second, Inishmaan is very much an ensemble piece, with lots of good interaction between the nine characters; Radcliffe is frequently not even on the stage. Instead, we get the charming and quirky residents of an Irish island town circa 1935: the dotty “aunties;” the aggressive red headed lass and her brother; the drunk; the loner with a boat.

This, in retrospect, is probably a good thing, as it’s Radcliffe who’s the weakest link in the production. Too physically healthy to be convincing as a cripple, he’s also mealy mouthed and a bit cutesy. Maybe he was just playing “Crippled Billy” for laughs; but I’m convinced the character had greater depths available. Or maybe Radcliffe just doesn’t have a knack for comedy. The role is both not a star turn in terms of time on stage, but also not one as performed.

That said, despite not being perfect, this is certainly an enjoyable show; and while the comedy is a bit too much at times, at least the jokes are genuinely funny. Overall, it was a good investment of my ten quid, and for the same price I would certainly recommend it.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on June 11th, 2013. It continues through August 31st.)

Review – Peter and Alice – Michael Grandage company at Noel Coward Theater

March 10, 2013

GRANDAGE: So it’s going to be a season of five plays, and I thought we would mix old plays with new.
WRITER: Excellent! And we can use the star power of the big names to encourage people to see the new shows!
G: Well, just one new play, actually, but with Judi and Ben on board that will pack the house.
WRITER: Ooh ooh let’s get all meta and make them play OTHER FICTIONAL CHARACTERS. Well, real people, but fictional characters at the same time.
G: Hmm, sounds intriguing. But they only want to do ninety minutes. You can make it short, right?
WRITER: Sure, no problem! We’ll explore …
G: Make sure they each get a chance to give some nice speeches.
WRITER: Um, yeah, I can do that.
G: And it had better be some fairly intriguing fictional characters. Popular. With some in jokes about fame. The audience will love that.
WRITER: I can make the whole thing about the disjunction between fame and reality …
G: Works for me. Okay, I need to have another meetings. Get me the script by September, and a working title in time for the announcement and publicity.

And so, I imagine, was born the play that became Peter and Alice – looking good on paper (“the characters that inspire to works of children’s fiction speak to each other about their experiences”) and with seemingly everything it needed for success (money, publicity, actors who truly were skimmed from the highest echelons of the British theater scene and had done film as well so as to pull in the punters), and with a highly attractive running time that seemed guaranteed to keep Ben and Judi free to do other works on the side if they felt like it. And the house overflowethed and there was a queue around the corner waiting for returns and the standing spaces were full as well.

And … there they were, his skinniness and her lordliness (she lords rather than ladys on the stage), sort of inhabiting these recreations of Alice Liddell Hargreaves (inspiration for Alice in Wonderland) and Peter Llewelyn Davies (inspiration, or perhaps just namesake, for Peter Pan). Playwright John Logan certainly researched them, but, per the results, without ever finding a way to bring them to life. Davies certainly had many personal tragedies to endure at a young age, and Hargreaves seems to have overcome any possible inappropriate behavior from Dodgson to have become perfectly boring; both of them really suffered during World War I.

But I couldn’t really find much to grab on to in this slight work. Fantasy is more fun than reality, and we should accept our childlike natures? Book authors can be a bit odd? Celebrity doesn’t save you from misery? It almost felt like an act of desperation when Logan added Alice (of Wonderland) and Peter Pan into the mix; clearly, the lives of Alice L and Peter D themselves just didn’t have enough material to fill the evening even when the authors were added to stretch it out.

When all was said and done, my memories of this play will be watching Peter’s brother Michael commit suicide in a lake rather than face the disapproval of his guardian (as J.M. Barrie became) because of his homosexuality; and discovering that Peter had thrown himself in front of a train at Sloane Square. There really wasn’t much else, and I’m afraid for me the thrill of a Dame Judi and His Hotness Wishlaw aren’t enough to compensate for a poor script (not that if they were individually or together on stage again I wouldn’t likely still go, they are really that good). At least the tickets were 10 quid and, of course, it was all over fairly quickly (though it seemed at least thirty minutes longer than it really was). And, gosh, I kind of want to take the Wonderland bits of the set home with me. But otherwise … it was just a big, big waste of an opportunity to do something amazing. Oh well, new plays: you win some, you lose some, and at 90 minutes and 10 quid I didn’t really lose much.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, March 9th, 2013. It’s been extended to June 1st so if my review didn’t turn you off, don’t despair. Also, as with all performances in this series, “a limited number of £10 day seats will be released at 10.30am on the day of performance.”)

Mini-review – Privates on Parade – Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward Theater

December 5, 2012

This ill thought start to the Michael Grandage season left me so puzzled as to why it had been picked that I actually did a little research before I started writing this up (normally I go for a “straight from the gut” impression without even the benefit of reading the program – let a show stand on its own merits, I say). Was it actually written in an era where the degree of raw racism it showed was funny? I had just the night before seen Our Boys so the filthy mouths of servicemen (lots of talk about sex and their own genitals) was fresh in my mind. But the gap between these plays was … well, there was a joke one of these nights about Moses parting the Red Sea, and on one hand there was Egypt and the other the Promised Land.

And Michael Grandage was the one with the mummy jokes.

Right, so it SEEMED likely to be awesome, and there’s no doubt that Simon Russell Beale is astounding and on form as a very gay post-war entertainer, with lots of star turns in deluxe drag (loved his Marlene Dietrich!). I was ready for laughs and delighted at the nudity and surprised that so much of the show was dance numbers …

And then the interval came around and I couldn’t believe it had only been, what, 70 minutes. It felt like two hours! And it already felt like it was ready to be over!

The problem, I think, comes down to the script. I’m sure there’s a lot of jokes in there that maybe rang a little truer in 1977 when England was closer to the memory of empire, but all of the crap about stupid chinks/brown faced people/half castes or what have you just got on my tits. Yeah, sure, when Britain cleared out Singapore became a massive superpower (the point made at the end), but you know what? We’ve moved on, and I’m not even a “we” yet. That means we’re left with a story about an intelligent young man who sells out his ideals for a chance at power, and an older man who sells out the people under his command to make some point about empire. That leaves about two potential human beings in the whole cast, and to be honest, Silvia Morgan was a stereotype, too.

That left Mr. Beale all alone to carry the show. Magnificent though he was, it simply was not enough. Bah. I guess I’ll just consider this one my “freebie” as when you bought the entire season, it was discounted so that one of the tickets was essential free. What am I going to do with the second one I bought for closing night? AAARGH!

(This review is for a preview peroformance that took place on December 4th, 2012. It continues through March 2nd.)

Mini-review – Julius Caesar – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Noel Coward Theater

August 12, 2012

It’s hard not to get a little more excited about shows when you can see them building up day by day. This is what led me to get tickets for the RSC’s Julius Caesar at the Noel Coward theater – something about watching the load in made me much more excited about this show than I might have been, given that I’m way past my standard annual Shakespeare limit (four so far and I doubled up on Henry V). But I’d never seen this play before, and they had some seats going for £12.50 (if you buy them at the box office; otherwise there’s an extortionate £2 charge per ticket), so I sweet talked my roommate and next thing you know there we are about the 2nd night of previews. Woo hoo! (Note: I couldn’t find any discounts for this show anywhere, but the highest tier of the gods was closed, so if I’d bought there I would have done better than for my irritatingly restricted side balcony seat – much leaning forward was necessary.) I didn’t really know anything about this show, other than having someone tell me it was an all-black cast.

The setting for this version of Julius Caesar is most decidedly Africa: to me, it felt a bit like what I might expect of South Africa (especially with the rubber tire “necklace”), but the shamanic figure and music didn’t give me a solid setting: it was more of a feeling of any place where dictators might rise and fall, where armies of men stood ready to fight at a moment, where the populace was ready to cheer or riot as necessary. It seemed very much to be Anycountry, but for the undercurrent of a total dedication to freedom and rejecting tyranny: that made it Rome, ancient Rome all the way, no matter what clothes anyone was wearing or what sort of guns they carried. Shakespeare’s words held true, and even in a world of cement blocks crumbled by war, to me we were a few blocks from the Forum, talking about a way of life and an ethos that had long since vanished.

The sad thing, really, is that the words of this production were frequently hard to enjoy. Without studying the work beforehand, it often happens that you just have to let things slip in Shakespeare and figure you’ll catch up with it later when you read the script; but I was really struggling to hear what people were saying on stage. I think the ambient noise and the frequent shouting were just turning things into a mush. Still, the emotional power shone through: of Marc Antony’s manipulation; of Brutus’ abuse of Cassius; of the murderous power of a mob. It all goes by in an incredibly rush, though oddly they’ve decided to put an interval in shortly after the assassination scene (this not present during the Stratford run). Still … a strong production and a good show, nicely framed to show the key elements of truth in the political world of the present.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, August 10th, 2012. It continues through September 15th.)