Posts Tagged ‘Noël Coward’

Mini-Review – Photograph 51 – Noel Coward Theater

September 12, 2015

There is much to like about Photograph 51 from this burnt out critic’s point of view. Its running time is 90 minutes straight through, and it’s paced briskly, so it’s almost impossible to be bored before the end (unlike other plays on right now). It has affordably priced tickets (ten pounds in the front row of the gods, a completely acceptable place to watch this show as long as you don’t have vertigo). It’s actually about something intellectually interesting and unusual – the discovery of DNA – and has chosen as its a lead character the historical character – Rosalind Franklin – who was a very hard core scientist at a time when few women did this work. This character is, curiously, portrayed by Nicole Kidman.

The story is about how Dr. Franklin gets a job working with another researcher at King’s College in the early 50s. She has to deal with an inherently sexist, demeaning establishment; they (every other character is a man) have to deal with a cold, defensive intellectual who is extraordinarily stiff and uncompromising. Admittedly, much of this is due to the trials Franklin had to deal with to become and work as a scientist during difficult times (for women and for Jewish people); but in the memories she recalls of her childhood it seems like she was always driven, competitive, and not really concerned with connecting with others.

While the story people racing to discover DNA is, in itself, quite involving, Franklin, as a character, is a difficult person to muster sympathy for. She is wholly involved in her work to the exclusion of connection with other people, and I found that made it hard for me to connect with her. While the end of the play was, in its way, tragic, I found it hard to get very passionate about Franklin and left unmoved. Photograph 51 hit the bar of being worth the money I paid for it (and the time invested), but left me feeling distant from what I had seen – rather, again, like Song From Far Away, but for much less money. And just to make it all a little more ironic: the actual photograph was taken by a PhD student, Raymond Gosling.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Thursday, September 10th, 2015. It runs through November 21st.)

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Review – A Naughty Night with Noel Coward – Old Red Lion Theater

August 13, 2015

Frankly, it doesn’t take much to convince me to watch Noel Coward, but if I’d known in advance I was getting in two saucy plays in less than an hour, I would have beaten down the door of the Red Lion instead of waiting as long as I did to see it. I enjoy Coward’s writing quite a lot, but the chance to see some works that might have set off the censors really caught my attention. I mean, Coward has a reputation for raking up trouble, for dropping hints of (some of) his characters’ bisexuality and treating the “state of matrimony” as more of a “state of mind” – but in his mainstage shows, you barely get a hint of actual scandal. I’m pleased to say this sense of restraint is utterly discarded, like a filmy negligee,

The first play, “We Were Dancing,” had me laughing from about two minutes in, when Louise (Lianne Harvey) attempts to introduce the man she’s fallen madly in love with and realizes she doesn’t actually know his name. I thought it was hysterical that she could actually think she was in love, but her husband (John MacCormick)’s attempts to negotiate this field of landmines was even more funny. I felt we were supposed to double Louise’s ability to actually understand her emotions – the new beau, Karl Sandys (James Sindall) also claims it’s love – and in some ways the ending is both a bit of a relief and a reassurance to the audience that we were right to have doubts. The actors played it all very straight, which made it even merrier. Have a nice stiff drink beforehand so you can join in the fun.

Lianne Harvey and James Sindall

Lianne Harvey and James Sindall


Next up was “The Better Half,” which, per the program notes, was written for the London Grand Guignol theater. Although this is, once again, a play that makes fun of the institution of marriage, it’s actually quite valid in Grand Guignol due to its focus on manipulation and violence. However, the possibly depressing (or murderous) tack this could take is overwhelmed by Alice (Tracey Pickup)’s focus on the self-congratulatory, prideful smugness of her husband (Stephen Fawkes) – don’t we all know people like this, people who are so obsessed with being accepting and understanding that you just ache for them to get mad about anything, once? I certainly sympathized with Alice – although she was frighteningly sanguine about her husband’s teetering on the border of infidelity – and found the ending extremely satisfying. If only I could have jumped in and given the characters a little slap!

Adding to the general atmosphere was some very nice work at the piano from Mr Tom Self and a pair of songs from Mr Coward’s oeuvre – poignant and lovely to hear. So much entertainment and all over in about sixty minutes – just in time to refresh your drink. I’m sure Noel would have approved.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, August 8, 2015. It continues through August 29th.)

Review – Death of a Salesman – Royal Shakespeare Company at Noel Coward Theater

May 14, 2015

It seems pretty ridiculous when you think about it that I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, but it has just always seemed so canonical that there didn’t seem to be any real pressure to go. I mean, seeing a rarely produced Arthur Miller play, now that’s an event. But his most famous one? I’d studied it in high school, and, well, now that I think about it, it just didn’t seem to get produced all that much … anyway, so here I am, it’s 2015 and I’ve never seen Death of a Salesman, so when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production was coming to the Noel Coward, I jumped right on buying a ticket, especially because I wanted to hit the sweet preview pricing. My reward was a £30 seat in the back of the Royal Circle which, while it did leave dents from my knees in my chest, gave me a fully unobstructed view of the stage and would have been perfect if I’d only been three inches shorter.

Normally I try to hide plot details from people in my reviews, but I’m not really going to do that this time – be warned: like Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, the details of Death of a Salesman are something I’m going to assume you’re familiar with, and I’ll talk about it all freely here. But before I do that, I’m going to share this bit of interval chatter between me and my co-viewer:
“Well, how about that? It’s pretty good, huh? But I wish you could see a version on Broadway.”
“Why would I want that?”
“Well, you know, so you could see all of the famous American actors.”
“Are these actors not famous? I don’t really know.”
“Well, yeah, Antony Sher, and I think Harriet Walter …”
“Look, I don’t need to see anybody else in this play. This cast is perfect. Biff is a little weird but it’s basically the way he’s written. I could not ask for a better production of this show. It’s the kind of thing that makes me thrilled to live in London, where I can see stuff like this, absolutely excellent realistic theater, every night. I can practically expect it. And yet still it’s a bit of a surprise when it’s all as good as this is. Now let’s sit down and watch Willy Loman fall apart.”

Right, off you go people who don’t know the plot.

Thirty years after I last dealt with this play, I’m amazed at both how timelessly its depiction of American values bears up, and how very much my emotional response to the characters’ voyages has changed. As a picture of America, Miller got it spot on in 1949 just as carelessly accurately as O’Neill did in Ah, Wilderness! – but I experience it differently now that I’ve become estranged from my country of birth. Americans’ focus on positivity, the lies people tell when life gets ugly, the materialism and shallowness – it blows me out of the water to see society so unchanged nearly seventy years later. But the vibrancy of the characters Miller created gleamed across the decades as well, and was well polished by the outstanding delivery the RSC’s troupe gave us. As a teenager, I found all of the characters detestable, much as Biff rejects his father for falling short of his moral standards: but as an adult, I can see the shortcomings of all of them through more forgiving eyes. The mother, Linda, whom I hated for being a doormat as well as being disloyal to her sons – now, as a woman near her age, I can see how outstanding her loyalty to her husband is: and with Harriet Walter in the role, I was able to believe, to the soles of my shoes, that Linda truly, deeply loved Willy, and that she understood that he was falling apart and needed her more than ever. The sons, Happy and Biff, well, I can see where Miller has tried to draw them in a way that we can see how their childhood has made them into the people they are today: but I now believe that Biff is a badly created character rather than a detestable human being. Both Biff and Happy treat their father repulsively, but Biff’s inability to get his own life in gear simply doesn’t have a believable basis per Miller’s writing. Alex Hassell gives it his best, but I can’t buy him because I can’t buy the character.

Willy Loman, though, wow, what a tour de force. On paper, reading Linda saying that he is “tired” didn’t work for me; but twenty five years of trying to make sure I have enough money for rent every month has made me blaze with sympathy for the horror of Willy being stuck back on commission and losing his salary – at 60. I’m also more familiar with the way aging affects the mind, and as I watched this man who’s spent his life shilling stockings try to make sense of why his life now seems like shit, well, I am seeing early onset dementia (especially in the Ben scenes) as well as stress. I used to hate Loman for cutting his wife off but I know see how he’s desperately grasping for any life preserver he can find, and his shushing is more to keep his focus than to show any dislike of Linda; and his relationship with his best friend (he seems abusive to him as well) now, once again, reeks of deep, unconditional love on the side of his best friend Charley, which was doubtlessly built over the years and thus is able to be sustained, on Charley’s side, in the face of Loman’s mental collapse – which is brilliantly, diamond-sharp brought to life by Anthony Sher. Every up and down, dream and delusion is made real: his mercurial outbursts, his scrabbling, his begging – it was a believable, absorbing journey from start to finish. I simply could not believe how damned good this play could be, but with a cast this fine, Miller’s tiny wobbles were simply wibbles. I loved it. I’m so glad I had an opportunity to see this definitive performance of this excellent play – I recommend it without reservation at any price level (provide you’re buying from the box office).

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on May 12th, 2015. It continues through July 18th.)

Review – Words and Music – Lost Musicals at Sadler’s Wells

July 28, 2013

Winter entirely passed without an announcement of this year’s Lost Musicals‘ season (normally starting in March!) and, I have to admit, I was getting a little bit worried. But then it finally showed up in May, three shows (Noel Coward’s Words and Music; Burrow’s and Merril’s Holly Golightly;” and Cole Porter’s Around the World, starting in July and going through November, all at Sadler’s Wells. As ever, there’s a discount if you buy all three shows; be encouraged by me and go for it.

This afternoon’s show was prefaced with a bit of an apology from Ian Marshall Fisher: although Lost Musicals is intended to highlight forgotten works of the golden age of American musicals – but Words and Music doesn’t really qualify. It was written by Noel Coward – a British composer – for a British audience. The plan had been to show Coward’s Set to Music, in which he recast many of the tunes from W&M for America, but Fisher had not been able to track down the music despite much searching. So we were presented with this show instead, but since it featured many now well known songs and had not been remounted professionally since 1932 (ditto Set to Music but since 1939), it did seem to meet the bar for the series.

That said, the format of an unrelated series of songs done as a revue is not one I really like – I’m a much bigger fan of plot and character than just tunes. And while performed with panache, gusto, and wit (standouts were the incredible ham Vivienne Martin and the sexy and sassy Issy van Randwyck), but I found my attention drifting. I’m glad to have heard “Mad About the Boy” and “Mad Dogs and Englishman” in their original settings, but, well ,to me this evening was really for the hard core types. I tend to think I am one, and I must be because I’m glad I went, but if this doesn’t get another professional production again I feel confident it will be for all of the right reasons.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday July 14, 2013. It continues at Sadler”s Wells Lilian Baylis Theater on Sundays through August 4th.)

Review – Volcano – Vaudeville Theater

August 28, 2012

Or: Lava … And Leave her!

Once upon a time there was a brilliant playwright. His name was Noel or Tennessee or something like that*. He had written some plays that were amazing and timely and deeply illuminated the human condition. He was a success. Time went by. He kept writing but, at some point, maybe because he had been a success, the magic went away. Toward the end he might have been writing out of habit more than because he still had something to say.

This is the background from which I suspect Volcano sprung. It hasn’t been performed since it was written, and although this is supposedly because it was held back to save people from shame, I think there’s a lot to support the fact that it wasn’t rushed to the stage because, frankly, it’s not very good. It’s not even sort of good.

Actually, an argument can be made (I shall do so) that it is bad, really bad, especially if you consider that this play was written just one year before The Birthday Party. Drama had moved on since the 20s, yet as this play opens, we have a woman in a little black dress and a large rhinestone necklace hanging out in a garden while a greasy haired man in a suit – practically a mustache-twirling panto villain – explains to her in comically debonair tones why she’s made a mistake in not sleeping with him. She admonishes him to keep his distance or she will mash a rocks glass in his face – then dramatically (“dramatically”) throws it to the ground and stiffly looks away.

About four lines of dialogue in I was wondering just what sort of disaster I had belly-flopped into (though I was suspicious anyway given that the theater was half-empty). Was Nimax just desperate to get something, anything into the Vaudeville after pulling What the Butler Saw? (The set certainly looked cheap – a few little buildings and some large seashells – which supported the idea of a “anything else might work” approach.) Had they not given the actors sufficient time to rehearse? Or perhaps … the script was just a wreck and Coward was to blame?

As I watched these ridiculously dressed people spouting off these canned lines, as stereotyped as any Sun editorial, I started to feel that what I was actually watching was one of those plays within a plays … with the trope “the really, really bad play where even the actors didn’t seem to believe what they were saying.” Had I inadvertently walked into a parallel version of Noises Off? Could Coward possibly have thought any of these characters were interesting or appropriate for the fifties? I mean, the discussion of sexual desire was a bit more frank, but the hamming and false emotions, was I supposed to believe it?

Was I too far from the exit to carefully leave? Was this level of badness going to be sustained all the way until the interval?

Fortunately, when the next scene started (with new actors to break up the congealed goop between the leads), the urge to gag (my urge, not theirs) lightened, but the triviality of the dialogue and banality of the “situation” continued. Infidelity: really more boring than you might think, not inherently interesting like the script assumes. I sat there numbly watching people over dress, drink too much, and be jerks while a volcano rumbled behind them. My thought: the world wouldn’t miss them a bit if they all fell in, and my evening would perk up considerably.

And with that, I took my leave at the interval. I made it through half of it; you’re stronger than me if you can stomach more.

(This review is for a performance that took place on August 23rd, 2012. The play continues through September 29th. This play was already at the Richmond theater so if you were going to give it any slack because it was early in the run, you would be making a mistake.)

*Most decidedly not Henrik.

Review – Enron (by Lucy Prebble) – Royal Court

October 6, 2009

In the darkest gloom of 9/11, in those days when it seemed like everything was collapsing – the stock market, the job market, the American infrastructure, my ability to pay my rent – in the short, short days of a Seattle winter when it seemed the world was coming to an end, day after day I remember going to work following not Survivor (for reality TV was a new thing) but rather NPR’s nightly reporting on the implosion of Enron, the company that seemed single-handedly responsible for the ruin of the American energy market, for the blackouts in California and the sudden huge surge of costs for tiny cities in Northwestern Washington.

I’d watched my industry, the dot coms, go belly up in a huge Tulip Madness balloon – but what was this Enron mess? Day after day the personalities played out over the radio like a strange soap opera told in three minute increments, a story that finally ended in jail and death … and, if I’m not mistaken, a sentence that actually allowed someone to alternate “being out of jail time” with his also guilty wife so their kids could have at least one parent raising them … yet somehow didn’t result in anyone being shot by stockholders or the thoroughly betrayed and ruined employees of this corporation. It seemed to almost be at the level of a Greek tragedy, a corporate scandal that was more than just a few lined pockets and a quick flight to Brazil, rather a Trojan Women-style tale of a civilization utterly destroyed.

For me, the concept of Enron seemed completely sensible. We had the larger than life figures (Mama Rose!), the great brought low – why not give it a score and toss in dance numbers? The whole thing was so ludicrous it deserved to be turned into something we could all laugh at. This thought in mind, I managed to (barely) get a seat some two months before it opened at The Royal Court (even that early there was hardly anything but obstructed view for a matinee) and was quite eagerly looking forward to seeing the play despite still suffering from a most persistent lung infection.

As it turns out, Enron is very much a theater piece driven by personalities and plot, with just a few surreal moments thrown in. The key drama is the relationship between arrogant industry climber Jeremy Skilling (Samuel West, rising nicely from newb to player to pathetic has been with delusions of grandeur), brilliant lady executive Claudia Row (Amanda Drew, perfectly capturing the Texas blonde in all her complexities), and Skilling and desperate math genius Andy Fastow (Tom Goodman-Hill, believably pathetic). Somehow their own desires to do well in their careers make them both look normal (and easy to relate to) while also believably blinding them to any ethics considerations about their behavior. Their various moments of desperation are all sharp and full of drama – although the arc of each of their stories peaks at different times.

The intervening explanations of how Enron was truly built on a house of cards (or empty boxes) and just how energy deregulation served almost immediately to bring down the power grid in California are interleavened in such a way as to be very much digestible, both easy to understand and important to the story. Of course, it helps that a lightsaber fight is used to illustrate the California debacle, serving also to emphasize they way the real life traders actually treated the whole thing as a game, despite being directly responsible for the deaths of many people.

Two and three quarters of an hour later, dancing mice, tame velociraptors, and Siamese twin bankers were feeling almost normal, proving that creating a fantasy world that seems a representation of reality isn’t really that difficult. Enron convinced heaps of people that it was a going concern that actually made money by selling nothing and telling people they were making a profit; it’s not really all that much different from many of the financial scandals going on today. In fact, with its core of hubris, it’s a tale that transcends its historicity just as easily as John Gabriel Borkman did. Plus: lightsabers! In short: it was a good night out and I recommend it.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Saturday, October 3, 2009. Enron the Musical continues at the Royal Court through November 7th, 2009, but is about as sold out as it gets. It transfers to the Noel Coward theater January 16 – booking is now open, fyi. A better review is here)

Great deal on Noel Coward’s “Brief Encounter” at the Haymarket

July 8, 2008

I noticed in yesterday’s Metro that the daily reader offer was £20 tickets (buy one at £39.50, get one free) for Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter at the Cinema Haymarket, one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. The deal is “two top price tickets for £39.50,” and, hey, if you get lucky you’ll even get some snacks at intermission. It says “Call 0871 230 1562 and quote ‘Metro offer,’ valid for all performances except Saturday evenings until 31 August.” So, hurray for this – I’ll be going back to see it again!

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

June 18, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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