Posts Tagged ‘Reece Shearsmith’

Mini-review – The Dresser – Duke of York’s Theater

January 13, 2017

I knew little about this play before I went … I thought I’d seen some blurbles in the Evening Standard ages ago (back when it opened) but they had mostly faded into dim memory. Ah yes, the show about the guy who helps an actor dress up before shows … why, certainly I’ll go at the bargain price I was being offered a ticket for. I was actually unsure if I was going to see someone who was a costume designer or a wardrobe mistress or what, exactly, and just what the arc of the story was going to be. Frankly, it was the ideal situation for me, to walk into a theater having no idea what would happen on stage but feeling confident I was going to have one of those lovely experiences that I’ve come to expect thanks to living in the world capitol of English language theater.

Plot summary: it’s World War II, and bombing is going on. We’re in the dressing room of a famous actor (Ken Stott), who’s possibly not very good, and the man who helps him get ready to go on stage (Reece Shearsmith) is worried about whether or not “sir” is going to make the show tonight. He’s never missed a performance before, but something about all of the bombing seems to have unhinged “sir,” whom his dresser, Duncan, most recently saw wandering a market taking his clothes off and babbling. Duncan’s concerns seem well founded, and we sit with him as he nervously picks his way across Sir’s dressing room, talking with Sir’s partner (Harriet Thorpe) about Sir’s mental health, and generally setting us nicely for the big arrival of The Man Himself.

A lot of this play should be about the relationship of Sir and Duncan, but it’s actually more about the interaction of all of the personalities in a touring company, as we see when the long suffering (yet apparently devoted) stage manager appears – Duncan becomes all confidence, protecting Sir from the humiliation of a cancellation – and then again when a young, manipulative actress attempts to weasel her way into Sir’s dressing room (Normal threatens her with violence). Its all nicely balanced with the actual performance at the center of the play – a Noises Off romp through King Lear, with the backstage shenanigans front and center.

While seeing Duncan disintegrate in parallel with Sir may be what this show is supposed to be about, my enjoyment was most greatly because of the complex interleaving of this play with the text and characterization of Lear. To me, Lear is the the embodiment on many levels of an actual, inevitable mental and physical collapse of older actors, who may get decades on stage but will still eventually struggle to carry on doing what they love when their bodies and minds decide they can do no more. Semi-fictionally, this was wonderfully captured in My Perfect Mind, about an actor struggling to recuperate after a stroke had while in rehearsal for Lear: more meatily, however, this struggle for an actor to keep himself together was quite viscerally brought home two years ago when Brian Blessed had a physical collapse while playing the role, a trauma nearly immediately followed by a production where another actor failed to get his head wrapped around the hard work of dialogue memorization. Macbeth may be the unlucky play, but as a role that attracts older actors, Lear is now, to me, a role far more likely to see on stage tragedy. And seeing Sir struggle to remember his first line … indeed, to even remember which role he was about to play … was the truth of life as an actor being told on stage. It was heartbreakingly real, and a pleasure to watch.

It’s all for the best, then, that so much of this play ultimately has comedy at its heart; it makes for a brisk, exciting evening despite its 130 minute running time. It’s only on through this weekend, but I do recommend a watch; I for one will probalby try to find a way to see the BBC version with Sir Ian. Either way, it’s a treat.

(This review is for a performance that took place on January 5th, 2017. It continues through January 14th.)

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Review – Betty Blue Eyes – Novello Theater

June 1, 2011

Almost two months after it opened, I realize it’s a little late to be getting on the Betty Blue Eyes bandwagon. The musical opened April 14th, leading to a rash(er) of porcine punnerage in the printed press, but failing to grab my attention as anything but the “musical about a pig.” I waffled as the online reviews – tweeters and bloggers – were a mix of sizzle and roast. The Whingers were apathetic, while Ought to be Clowns said it was destined for greatness. Who was I to believe? Was I more worried about not maximizing my experience by getting a too-cheap seat, or wasting my time? The deciding vote of yes was ultimately caused by a blend of a freebie copy of the soundtrack (my God, real songs! with lyrics!) and the rather disturbing news that a Saturday night show the first week of May was half empty, meaning the timing of its closing was likely to be sooner rather than later. My goodness; it’s one thing to skip a bad show, but what if this closed unexpectedly and I’d actually missed a work of genius? Thanks to the (now generous half price stall seats) ticket offers at the TKTS booth, I was able to make my mind up myself without busting the bank. And I already knew the music would be good.

So, let’s see. Betty Blue Eyes, for those of you who, like me, are unfamiliar with the movie A Private Function, is a musical about the people involved with raising a pig that’s going to be served as the main course of a dinner for the glitterati of a small village. It’s set in post-war “austerity Britain” (which I know only as a counter-setting for some of Nancy Mitford’s The Blessing). Though the song writing wasn’t genius, it was heads and shoulders above Love Story and most of the long-running, popular modern musicals. Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith, playing the married couple (Joyce and Gilbert) at the heart of the show, were competent and businesslike: very believably middle-aged people whose lives hadn’t really gone where they thought they would. They were however, completely upstaged, not by the animatronic pig, but by “grandma” – Ann Emery – whose comic turn in the “Pig! No Pig” scene jumped the farce shark and went into some kind of higher comedic plane of unreality.

And, well, the dancing was good, but then there were those two empty balconies staring at me, seemingly draining the energy and enthusiasm out of the performers, and I couldn’t help but wonder, what wasn’t happening here? Why was this charming, if imperfect show looking like it was doomed to close at the end of the summer if not earlier?

I think there are two issue the show can’t overcome. First, Joyce is just not a sympathetic lead. She’s nasty to her husband, she’s a social climber, she complains a lot. She’s not someone you really enjoy have taking center stage. Even though she has two numbers that should cause the audience to connect with her (“Nobody” and “Dance at the Primrose Ballroom”), I found it impossible to feel sorry for someone who was so concerned about what other people thought about her. Yeah, sure, life is disappointing, but why not just get on with it and enjoy what you have? She couldn’t do it and as a result she had become bitter. Maybe there was a comedy figure hiding in there, but … I never really cheered her on.

The second thing is, well, this is a play about a group of people who are fairly enthusiastic about killing an animal that we, the audience, DO empathize with. It’s no longer the days when most everyone could, at least, kill their own chickens. And, well, the scene where the set is flooded with red light and Betty starts to scream is just NOT something I’d be wanting to take the kids to. In fact, I’d have questions about going myself. It set a really creepy, horrifying tone that the comic ending could just not shake off. And I think, really, as people are walking out of the theater, this feeling of “my God, killing animals is just really very unpleasant and noisy” is going to stick a lot more than the memories of the very funny paper villain (the Meat Inspector).

Overall I think this was a good musical – great hummable songs, lots of funny scenes, good dance numbers, and a real celebration of a lot of the fun quirky things about English society that I think the summer crowds would enjoy. But it’s just not pulling in the punters. If you like classic musicals, you will probably enjoy Betty Blue Eyes, and I advise you not to be too cocky in waiting to book as half full houses on a Saturday night are something no show can endure for long.

(This review is for a show seen on Saturday, May 14th, 2011. According to Delfont Mackintosh it’s currently booking until January 28, 2012, but I wouldn’t wait that long if you’re at all interested.)

Review – The Comedians – Lyric Hammersmith

October 15, 2009

It was with some trepidation that I headed to the Lyric Hammersmith to see The Comedians. A three hour running time has become a considerable burden to me on a school night and when I’d initially booked the tickets I hadn’t realized seeing the show was likely to wreck me for work the next day. In fact, I didn’t know anything about it at all, and really didn’t right up until I sat in my seat and looked at the program; I was there because the West End Whingers were going, and they tend to have a magical ability to sniff out good shows. In fact, if it hadn’t been for them, I’d never have managed to get in to see Enron. They’re also great company, though I’d brought my own posse along with me (admittedly in part so my American visitor Irene could meet Andrew and Phil). But, well, the Lyric has this thing where the first week of a show (usually) they do tickets at £10, so I figured, hey, if it’s bad, I’ll leave at the interval, and, gosh, I even have two different intervals to pick from! I also knew in my heart of hearts that if the show was good I wouldn’t regret the lost sleep.

First interval came around and I was still a bit on the fence. The show is about six men who have been going to night school to learn how to be comedians. I saw in the set up a bit of “The Pitman Painters,” with a lovable teacher (Matthew Kelly) who just wants to pass on a bit of his learning to a roomful of “characters,” with likely life lessons to follow at the end to send us all home with a smile. I figured the story would be mostly playing off of the comedy of the various “types” in the class, with a bunch of laughs in the middle during the “now we show our stuff at the comedy club” act before the heartwarming finale. (No, I didn’t read the program.) But I was wholly confused by what the types were supposed to be, as the accents were completely meaningless to me. I wasn’t able to tell the Northern Irish guy from the Republic of Ireland guy or actually from … well, any of the other guys except for the one who was supposed to be Jewish (and what was funny about that also passed me by). Being American was really working against me, and I wasn’t getting their casual jokes at all. I felt at a complete cultural loss. I was also kind of irritated by the overacting of Gethin Price, who as “teacher’s pet” David Dawson kept forgetting to interact with the other characters and instead kept acting toward the fourth wall. (“Hello​! You’re very sexy in an Alan Cumming kind of way, but would you please stop acting like you know we’re all out here and get on with being in the play? It ruins my developing fascination with you.”)

The one thing I did understand, and that got me back in the door after the end of first interval, in the face of the exhaustion I’d have to face the following day, was the drama that developed when the judge for the performances (Bert Challoner) appeared just after it was revealed that he and the teacher were arch rivals who had completely different ideas of how to be funny. Suddenly the students, who all wanted professional careers, were faced with failing their real test: getting a job. After getting a speech from him about what a comedian’s approach ought to be, suddenly it became clear that every one of them was going to try to fix his routine to better please the judge.

This conflict made me quite enthused to see Act Two, in which the students one by one (well, and once by two) went up on stage and did their best to wow the judge. This is when it finally became clear to me that I was watching an extremely good group of actors, because they were actors, not standup comedians, and yet for each of their acts I totally bought into what they were doing and the tension they were feeling. The best of the acts for me was the two-man routine Reece Shearsmith (as Phil Murray) and Mark Benton (as Ged Murray) did, when suddenly Phil, who’d been “the one who wasn’t funny” earlier, turned on his brother Ged and insisted he tell a racist joke that went completely against the philosophy of their professor – but that he felt sure would amuse the judge. The power of the moment when his jovial, gentle brother turned to him and said, “No, YOU tell the joke” and then physically moved him to a place where he would have to … words fail me. It was pure theater. I completely bought the characters and the situation. Admittedly, at the very beginning of the act, all I thought about was how pretty Michael Dylan’s blue eyes were, which wasn’t really about getting into his character so much as getting into him, but grab your pleasures where you will, I say. Anyway, by this act I was sold on the play, and the whole question of how to get a decent night’s sleep was moot; I was making the Ultimate Sacrifice and was going to call a cab after the show.

During the second intermission, I had a long conversation with an old guy who’s seen the show in its original incarnation in the 70s. According to him, the jokes the guys tell during the second act actually just aren’t funny, and people back them knew it. He said he was really surprised that people were laughing during the performance. I was, too, but I was confused because to me they almost all of the jokes seemed really offensive – I don’t see where being Irish or Catholic or Jewish is a comedy item and there’s no laughs for me in a joke about beating your wife up in a bar. But per Old Guy, this kind of humor was actually standard standup material in those days, especially up north (where this play was set), so the format itself was unsurprising – only the jokes were really flat. Of course there’s the question of the act the teacher’s pet performed, about which I’ll say little other than I thought about it during the De Frutos catastrophe the next night, but that had to be its own special moment.

Act three was, well, really not the heartwarming huggy-feely takeaway I was expecting and a lot more of the “this is going to get dark” my husband anticipated. There is a bit of a message about artistic integrity, but the whole thing is couched in a rather nauseating story that ends in a Nazi death camp, so any chance of a “feel good” is blown out of the water. Still, as we all walked out, a bit dazed and blasted, my thought was: what an amazing ensemble cast I just saw perform. Nearly three straight hours and I didn’t begrudge them a minute; once act two started I was bought in all the way. While I was too culturally confused to be able to see it in the big stars and lights the West End Whingers did, I’d definitely say this is a show worth catching.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Monday, October 11th, 2009. It continues through November 14th. I ate at Akash Tandoor beforehand and can highly recommend their 20 quid two person combo plate.)